Dozens of people in the Tampa progressive community gathered Wednesday night in Ybor City to say goodbye (for now) to Mary Mulhern, the Tampa City Council woman who is leaving the board due to term limits next week.
“Mary has always stood up for everybody in this community,” said Tampa attorney and prominent Democrat Gary Gibbons, who introduced Mulhern on the stage in the courtyard of Gasper’s Grotto. “Sometimes she was the only vote on a tough issue, and she didn’t try to figure out what the politics of it was, she tried to figure out what was right.”
Looking out at the crowd, and specifically at Council members Yolie Capin, Frank Reddick and Mike Suarez, Gibbons said that two weeks from now when they begin debating a tough issue without Mulhern sitting next to them on the dais, they should summon their “inner-Mary.”
Mulhern is an unabashed liberal who was often on the losing end of an issue, though that doesn’t mean she was in the wrong. In fact, her supporters would say she should see her stances that couldn’t get the support of her colleagues as a badge of courage.
Perhaps the strongest indication of her independence was early in 2012, when she was the only member on the Council to vote against authorizing $2 million in federal money for surveillance cameras to cover downtown Tampa during the Republican National Convention. That was the last time the Council had serious control over the cameras.
After the convention, the Council brought back the issue to decide what to do about the cameras. But by then it was too late, as the power with the cameras at that point was solely in Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s hands. Mulhern said she didn’t want to say she “told you so,” but, well, she did.
During most of her first term in office, though, she was joined frequently on the issues by fellow Democrats John Dingfelder and Linda Saul-Sena, who both departed the board in 2010 to run (and lose) for Hillsborough County Commission races. More often than not, however, they were on the losing end of 4-3 votes that divided the Council (and sometimes the city).
Another issue where Mulhern held on to her guns despite published pressure was on panhandlng. During the 2011 election campaign, when there were over 30 candidates running for public office in Tampa, Mulhern consistently fought against the measures proposed. At times she was joined by Frank Reddick and Yolie Capin, but at the end, she was the lone holdout in resisting what some critics said was “criminalizing the homeless” (though others felt it was a problem that needed to be controlled).
“It’s been difficult for all of us at times,” she told the crowd, while standing next to colleagues Yolie Capin and Frank Reddick. “Being that lonely vote, a lot of times in the last four years I was lonely,” though she then said she often would have Capin or Reddick join her. “We have worked really well together on a lot of things.”
Mulhern hails from Detroit, and received her BFA from the University of Michigan, before becoming Art Administrator for the Art Institute of Chicago.
It was on a plane ride that she met her eventual husband, advertising director Cam Dilley, ultimately relocating to Tampa in the late 1990s. She says that she was never very political until she joined with other Democrats who were disaffected from the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee but were determined to try to defeat George W. Bush in 2004, leading to the creation of what was known as the 537 club.
Bitten by the political bug, she became the Democratic nominee for the Hillsborough County Commission seat in 2006 against Rose Ferlita. Though she lost that race, it raised her profile in a city where people are often told they have to pay their dues.
Hiring campaign manager Mitch Kates in 2007, she was the upset victor over Shawn Harrison in the citywide District 2 race. After some controversial votes some thought she was vulnerable in 2011, but in fact she wasn’t, defeating two challengers without going to a runoff.
“Mary has always followed her heart and her head, and has always been so genuine,” said her colleague and friend, Yolie Capin. “That’s what makes Mary so endearing, whether you’re on the other side or with her, when it’s over, it’s over.”
Her hard-driving ways often did alienate some in the political community, undoubtedly.
She announced in 2013 that she would run for the district-wide County Commission seat being vacated by Mark Sharpe in 2014, setting up what could have been an intense primary with fellow Democrat April Griffin. But health considerations led her to withdraw from the race in January of 2014. (She has multiple sclerosis.}
Griffin was in attendance on Wednesday night, as was Hillsborough School Board members Susan Valdes and Cindy Stuart. (In another show of her independence, Mulhern recently was the only member of the Council to speak out on honoring departed superintendent MaryEllen Elia.)
“This isn’t necessarily a goodbye,” said another colleague on the Council, Mike Suarez. “Goodbye to council for now, but we never know what’s going to happen.”
The 56-year-old Mulhern hasn’t said what’s next for her in her career, though she did say she looked forward to relaxing after her last Council meeting next week.
“I have to figure out how to relax,” she told the audience.