Tyler Barrett isn’t your typical politico

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There are more than a few familiar faces among the non-incumbents who have filed to run in next year’s city council races in Tampa.

Julie Jenkins, Joe Citro, Guido Maniscalco and Susan Long are all back around this cycle after losing their respective bids for office in 2011.

One of the freshest personalities on the scene is University of Tampa student Tyler Barrett, who is running in the District 4 South Tampa race against incumbent Harry Cohen and businessman Kent King.

In an interview conducted last week at the South Howard Avenue Starbucks, Barrett, a 23-year-old double major in history and government and world affairs, said he hadn’t seriously considered a run for office until a month or so before the midterm elections this past fall. But he said he talked to people in the community for a “long, long time,” who felt that their voices aren’t being heard at City Hall and believe a community activist is the best person in the job. “And that’s who I am,” he proudly declares, embracing the term that many Republicans have used as an epithet against our current president, who served for years as a community activist in Chicago in his trajectory to the White House.

He does have political experience, having worked on Nan Rich’s campaign for governor this year, Barack Obama’s effort in 2012, and on Pat Kemp’s run for Hillsborough County Commission this fall.

Barrett lists transportation, the homeless, the environment and public transportation as some of his key issues on the  home page of his website, Tyler4Tampa.com. Though he is undoubtedly passionate about those issues, at times his responses come off sometimes more as platitudes than concrete ways to deal with the issues that have been ongoing in the city for years.

For example, here’s his take on the homeless:

“I think homeless people are being pushed to find shelter in abandoned buildings and abandoned houses, and of course with homelessness comes an increased crime rate, and that’s a pattern you see all around the country, not just in Tampa.”

Homelessness, and specifically a proposed ban on panhandling ordinance, was one of the dominant issues of the 2011 municipal election in Tampa. The City Council passed a partial ban on panhandling in 2011, and followed up with two more ordinances in 2013, including one that would allow police officers to arrest someone they see sleeping in public or “storing personal property in public.” But it  called for the  police to give the homeless the option of going to shelter or jail,  after they had been cited three times for aggressive panhandling in downtown, Ybor City and West Tampa.

“I don’t think that’s something that we should put off to our Police Department,” Barrett says, chastising Cohen for supporting the ordinance. “I don’t think that’s beneficial. I think that just adds to the stress of the entire situation.”

Regarding transportation, and specifically a potential tax referendum on the 2016 ballot in Hillsborough County on transit, Barrett admits he’s still coming to speed on the issue, and isn’t ready to commit to answer. But he says that he doesn’t like the idea of promoting mass transit as a vehicle for job creation. “I don’t think that’s necessarily the focus,” he says.”I think we would all like to see something go from Tampa to St. Petersburg,  but what we need is something to get us from the airport to downtown Tampa and from downtown to Westshore.” He’s critical of what he says is limited bus service in the city. “I think the first step is getting our community leaders and elected officials on that wave length.”

The Jackson, Mississippi native says he “loves everything about” Tampa, but believes there’s plenty of room for improvement. “We’re not quite there yet,” he says about the city’s shortcomings regarding transit and helping the homeless. But he says that’s less reflective of the people and more on the elected officials. “I mean, we call upon the community for their opinions and we allow people to voice their opinions, but people are still feeling like they’re not being heard.”  That’s the sentiment he says he hears from the men and women in District 4 who he’s been speaking to while canvassing neighborhoods.

Having just started up his campaign in October, Barrett’s fundraising totals are relatively meager at the moment (just a few hundred dollars in the war chest), and is being dwarfed by Cohen’s $77,000 in contributions. The other candidate in the race, Kent King, has raised $36,000.

“I think it’s safe to say that the money battle is between Cohen and King for sure,” Barrett acknowledges. Though he says he comes from the grassroots, he also realizes he’ll need money to get his message out. “But our focus is focusing on the voters first and finding out what their needs are and listening to those needs.” That’s what he’s doing a lot of these days: listening to the opinions of people who he encounters while knocking on doors.

I’m not a typical politician, clearly,” he enumerates. “But I’m an honest and genuine person. And I’m reaching out to the community to hear what their needs are. That’s my primary concern and that’s where my focus is right now.”

The primary election is on March 3, 2015.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.