Bob Merkle for the Defense! 1989 INTERVIEW

(Originally written in November 1989 for Florida Business/Tampa Bay; also published the same year in the Orlando Sentinel Sunday magazine. Merkle died at the age of 58 on May 6, 2003.)

Robert Merkle, United States Attorney, Middle District of Florida (Photo Credit: C-SPAN)
Robert Merkle, United States Attorney, Middle District of Florida (Photo Credit: C-SPAN)

The man who stared down Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, the man who sent Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder to prison, the man who challenged Connie Mack for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate-yes, Bob “Mad Dog” Merkle-couldn’t turn on a telephone.

He’d never before seen a phone that ran on batteries. The federal government didn’t buy ’em that way.

That wasn’t Merkle’s only problem in setting up his first business since running a lemonade stand as a kid. There was all that governmental red tape, all the bureaus to visit and license fees to be paid. For a man who had spent his entire career in government, it was an eye-opening experience being on the other side.

Until he could afford a secretary, Merkle did his own typing. He rented office space within another law firm until he could get on his feet. Merkle only had two phones-one in his office and one for a parade of temporary secretaries. That left his partner, Joe Magri, in the cold. When someone called for Magri, he’d have to use Merkle’s phone and Merkle would have to wait outside the office.

Then there was the problem of research. Unable to afford their own law library, Merkle and Magri had to spend nights and weekends looking up cases in the Pinellas County Courthouse law library. “It was inconvenient as hell,” says Merkle. “It’s very inefficient having to leave your office, especially when you’re the only one there. You go downtown, look for a parking space then find you don’t have any change for the meter.” Merkle’s notoriety didn’t help; everyone he ran into wondered why the infamous attorney was doing his own searches through the stacks.

When they finally bought their own statutes, Merkle and Magri discovered a new problem: no room in their makeshift office for book shelves. So the lawyers took out the indexes and had to leave the rest of the books in boxes. To find something, whole cartons would have to be shuffled.

“It’s one of those things you look back fondly on,” says Magri, “and thank God it didn’t last long.”

Welcome to the world of private lawyering, former federal prosecutor style.

Among modern U.S. attorneys, only New York-based Rudolph Giuliani enjoyed more renown and infamy in the 1980s than Bob “Mad Dog” Merkle. While Giuliani played the game of federal prosecutor in a bigger arena, there are many similarities between him and Merkle, including national television profiles in 1987-Giuliani on ABC’s “20/20,” Merkle on CBS’s “60 Minutes”-and the failure of both to leapfrog from appointed to elected office. (Giuliani wanted to be mayor of New York in ’89; Merkle chased the role of U.S. Senator in ’88). Now both face at least the immediate future in private practice.

From 1982 to 1988, Merkle went after the biggest fish in the sea of 32 counties making up the Middle District of Florida. His office’s cases never failed to make headlines: the corruption trials of members of the Hillsborough County Commission and Nelson Italiano, a once-prominent figure in Hillsborough County Democratic politics; drug indictments brought against Lehder, Noriega and ex-baseball star Denny McLain; perjury charges against State Rep. Elvin Martinez; investigation of former Hillsborough State Attorney E.J. Salcines; and the prosecution of plastic surgeon Dr. Dale B. Dubin on child-pornography charges.

“We didn’t win all the cases, but nobody does,” says Merkle. “It was claimed I only went after Democrats, that I only went after lawyers-depending on whose ox was being gored, that defined ‘the problem with Merkle.’ If there’s a rap there, it was that I went after everybody. Nobody was above the law.”

Merkle was the first U.S. attorney to successfully extradite and prosecute a member of Colombia’s feared Medellin Cartel. The life sentence drug lord Carlos Lehder received in 1988 was a precursor of the bloody civil war that has since wracked Colombia.

When he won, Merkle lavished compliments upon the American legal system, judge and jurors. When he lost, Merkle explained it away by saying the jurors and judge didn’t understand the case.

Along the way, many respected voices called for his firing, including Florida Governor Bob Martinez (cross-examined by Merkle in the Italiano case), Barry Cohen (Salcines’ attorney), a majority of Florida’s sheriffs, the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times. Senators Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles were openly critical of Merkle. (The Times eventually recommended Merkle over Connie Mack in the Senate primary; he refused to accept.)

Robert Merkle, United States Attorney, Middle District of Florida (Photo Credit: C-SPAN)
Robert Merkle, United States Attorney, Middle District of Florida (Photo Credit: C-SPAN)

Clearly, not everyone will be rooting for Merkle to succeed in private practice. Not Tampa attorney Barry Cohen, who sought Merkle’s removal from office with a full-page newspaper ad and petition campaign after the U.S. attorney’s three-year, public investigation of Cohen;s client, E.J. Salcines, damaged the former Hillsborough State Attorney’s reputation. Merkle never brought charges against Salcines, but all the negative publicity probably costing Salcines re-election.

Although Cohen declined comment for Florida Business, he did describe to Morley Safer of “60 Minutes” what he called Merkle’s “McCarthy mentality.” On the nationally broadcast television program, Cohen accused Merkle of ” … inducing people to tell untruths … threatening people that they’ll be indicted if they don’t tell you what you want to hear so that you can manipulate the facts … telling witnesses that you’d better testify in a particular way.”

Merkle and Magri have both had run-ins with Cohen over the years. They say Cohen is an expert at trying cases in the media. “Barry Cohen is a good defense attorney in that he knows how to utilize the media,” says Magri. “He gives talks on how to use the media to help defend a case.” Cohen used a Florida Bar seminar in October as a forum to criticize Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Richard Mensch for prosecuting chiropractor William LaTorre as a way of getting back at Cohen for winning a drug case.

After leaving office, Merkle continued to lose friends and influence enemies. He called his former boss, Attorney General Edwin Meese III, a liar and described Connie Mack and Bob Martinez as a “dynamic duo of sleaze.” When Mack refused to debate him, Merkle traveled the state with a lifesize representation of Mack, which he dubbed “Cardboard Connie.”

Whatever his faults, the sleepy-eyed, sharp-tongued Merkle has never been dull.

* * *

Merkle, a graduate of Notre Dame and reserve fullback on the football team in 1964, spent 17 years in professional law enforcement as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and as an assistant state attorney in Pinellas County for the Sixth Judicial Circuit before being recommended by then-Senator Paula Hawkins to be U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida in 1982. Merkle left office in mid-1988 to challenge Connie Mack for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, which Mack later won.

After the campaign, Merkle set about finding a job to feed his wife Angela and their nine children. He set up an independent law office in downtown Clearwater and, at age 45, began competing for the first time for clients.

Merkle has done his best to make the setting of private law as similar to public work as possible. He took on his former chief assistant, Joe Magri, as equal partner and hired his former secretary, Dot Bunger, as office manager. Also joining the firm from the U.S. Attorney’s office was Ward Meythaler, who spent five years as an assistant under Merkle; Jeff Albinson spent five years as an assistant state attorney in Pinellas County; Robert Persante, a nationally ranked chess player, folded his sole practitioner office in Tampa to sign on; Dayra Morales is the freshman member of Merkle & Magri, having just graduated University of Florida Law School.

The Merkle & Magri team goes back to a time shortly after Merkle’s appointment by Ronald Reagan in 1982. “I met him at a party that my law firm threw on Capitol Hill,” recalls Magri. An uncle of Merkle’s was a partner in Cummings and Lockwood, the firm where Magri worked. “We got talking about doing some prosecutions and it really sounded good to me. And he liked to play golf.”

Over the years, a good working relationship developed into a deep friendship and respect between the two men. “We complement each other well,” says Merkle. “There are certain talents he has and certain talents I have that mesh. It’s a very good relationship.”

Magri, 41, was promoted to acting U.S. attorney when Merkle left office in June 1988 to run for the Republican senate nomination vs. Connie Mack. Less than six weeks later, then-U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese announced Robert Genzman of Orlando would be the new U.S. attorney for the middle district of Florida. The announcement may have been timed to embarrass Merkle just days before the Republican Senate primary; Merkle has said he had an understanding with Meese that Magri would be his permanent successor. Had he known otherwise, Merkle has publicly suggested, he might not have left office. (Magri served as acting U.S. attorney until early 1989.)

“We’ve been about as close as two lawyers could be in terms of our working relationship over seven years,” says Magri. “I have a great deal of respect for his ethics, his approach to the law. He’s a very aggressive lawyer. He fights very hard for his position. I think he’s an exceptional lawyer.”

There are enough rooms with a Rocky Point waterfront view for five more attorneys in the spacious, 11th-floor Waterford Plaza law offices of Merkle & Magri. There is plenty of work to go around; Merkle himself is likely to surpassed his $70,000 federal salary in the firm’s first year of business. “I wouldn’t commit myself to significant salaries if I didn’t have the work to support it,” he says. Then, adds Merkle with a twinkling eye on the bottom line, “That’s a fundamental business decision.”

One of the advantages to private practice for an attorney with Merkle’s celebrity status is that it draws in all kinds of people with unusual problems. That is also the chief drawback of being Bob Merkle, P.A.

“I get people who, frankly, are nuts,” he says. “I had one guy who claimed he was the past owner of Amtrak, Yankee Stadium and the Skyway Bridge. This was a conspiracy to involve all sorts of people. I didn’t accept him as a client. I used to get these people at the U.S. Attorney’s office but I had a screening process where we could file a letter in the nut file and let it go.

“I spend an awful lot of time talking to people who have no intention, no wherewithal to hire me. They’re looking for emotional support, free advice.”

Then there are clients operating under what might be called “Mad Dog Fever,” which Merkle says has been spread by defense attorneys and newspaper reporters. The “Mad Dog” nickname began in his assistant state attorney days when he took on unwinnable cases and won them.

“My clients have hired me,” says Merkle, “because they perceived I was the meanest, nastiest sonuvabitch in the valley. They feel, ‘I don’t like you, but I want you as my attorney.’ They perceive that I can walk in, wave a wand and they get what they want. But that’s not the way the system works.”

Merkle insists he’s no frothing wild animal; it’s not practical. “I have always been in total control of myself in the courtroom. The image of a mad dog is certainly a repugnant image for a lawyer to have. A mad dog foams at the mouth and attacks everything in a mindless fashion.” The image has been built out of proportion but he hesitates to reject it entirely. “The good side is the way it was coined. It connotes tenacity and fearlessness. The irony is that that fiction hasn’t hurt my business,” he says. “But there’s another side of that. Sometimes when I walk into a courtroom, a judge who hasn’t met me operates on the same principle.”

Joe Magri is the perfect partner for Bob Merkle: he’s used to standing in the “Mad Dog’s” shadow. For seven years of federal prosecutions-successful or not-it was “Merkle this, Merkle that.” Guys like Magri and Meythaler worked just as hard but in relative anonymity. “Joe Magri deserves every bit as much credit as I do for what we did at the U.S. attorney’s office,” says Merkle.

In the private sector, the magnetism of Merkle’s name will be a mixed blessing. It will keep Magri in the shadows but probably make him a rich man.

“I don’t consider that a real issue,” says Magri. “If you want to talk about it from a business standpoint, an attorney that has the ability to attract attention generally attracts cases. That’s very good. That’s what we’re here for. If things go well for me and Bob does well, I’m going to be happy. What’s important is that the firm do well. If that results in Bob Merkle gaining publicity or continuing what he has, that’s something we should embrace.”

* * *

The days of chasing corrupt county commissioners and drug lords are over.

Bob Merkle has made a conscious decision to generally refuse criminal cases. He doesn’t want to belittle a long career of criminal prosecution by switching sides to defend drug dealers. Instead, he has chosen the more dignified civil arena, specializing in lender-liability, environmental and land-use litigation.

“There are obviously differences,” he says. “But there are some fundamental things that remain the same. A hearing is a hearing. A deposition is a deposition. The law is the law. Clients come to me because there’s the prospect of real litigation experience.”

Merkle says he’s not ruling out criminal defense work entirely, but he is unlikely to accept it unless “there is a situation where I can work to further both the client’s interests and the government’s interests at the same time. (Otherwise) it would be an abrupt and unacceptable jolt from what I’ve been committed to for my entire professional career. That’s a prospect when I’m using my skills to defend people who are otherwise guilty. I will not do drug work. I happen to have a personal experience in which I have a very high anti-drug profile. I don’t want to be in the position where I get people off as a routine manner of the way I work. I’m aware of the recidivism rate. I’ve known lawyers who’ve represented criminals and gotten them off. I don’t feel comfortable in using my talents to get these people off. Why should I be a mouthpiece for the Mob? Why should I be in-house counsel for a drug organization, insuring their people get back on the street?”

George Tragos, managing partner, managing partner at the Law Offices of Tragos, Sartes & Tragos, Clearwater, by Bob Andelman
George Tragos, managing partner, managing partner at the Law Offices of Tragos, Sartes & Tragos, Clearwater

George Tragos was a chief assistant under Merkle at the U.S. attorney’s office; like Merkle, Tragos also put in time at the state attorney’s office. But when Tragos left the federal prosecution business, he had no trouble working for the other side.

“I made the transition from prosecuting criminals to defending criminals,” says Tragos. “I’ve done it twice. I just wake up one morning and see the Constitution from the other side. I see words I never saw before. I enjoy practicing law and I enjoy trying cases. I don’t care if I’m prosecuting or defending.

“Bob-his personality didn’t allow him to make that transition,” according to Tragos. “He’s a person that didn’t feel psychologically he could defend criminals. Some people can, some people can’t. (Merkle) has a very negative idea of criminal defense lawyers. If you’re talking political ambition, representing drug smugglers and criminals doesn’t get you a lot of votes. He’s doing the right thing not tarnishing his image as a crimebuster.”

Tragos believes that the different directions he and Merkle have taken has been largely responsible for the end of their social contacts. But, notes Tragos, “In the civil work I’ve done, some of the people I’ve met have been bigger crooks than in criminal.”

Denis M. de Vlaming is another former assistant state attorney who turned the tables on the system and now makes his living as a criminal defense specialist. He expects Merkle’s aggressive style and tactics will be preferred by a certain type of client and that the former prosecutor will do very well in private practice.

“I admire him for not accepting criminal cases,” says de Vlaming. “I’m sure Mr. Merkle could win six-figure fees for drug dealer cases.”

de Vlaming says he once had a client who had been charged with three different burglaries. The man was acquitted of the first two charges. This occurred when Bob Merkle was an assistant state attorney. “The third time, Merkle came in and said, ‘You’re not winning this one,'” recalls de Vlaming. “Judge Fred Bryson has since said it was one of the most enjoyable cases he ever had. We went after each other, nose to nose. And he topped me. He did a good job.”

* * *

Attorneys who have spent a portion of their careers in public service say there are a number of differences between working for Uncle Sam and Joe Shmo.

For one thing, there’s money. When you work for Uncle Sam, he pays all the bills no matter what the cost and whether or not he can cover the debt. That’s important when a Carlos Lehder can pay a reported $2.5 million for his defense. And there’s a regular paycheck to depend on, utility bills are paid and plenty of No. 2 pencils and yellow legal pads. In the case of Merkle and Magri, there were also 47 assistant U.S. attorneys to share the work load.

Joe Shmo, on the other hand, won’t necessarily pay his bill on time. He’ll pay it late if he can and it’s no fun for a dignified attorney to chase down deadbeat clients. And if the firm doesn’t get paid, there’s no blank check from the government to keep the wheels turning. It’s a quick lesson in business for lawyers who haven’t had to worry about such details in government service.

“When you’re a U.S. attorney,” says Merkle, “you’re here for the United States. You have a client who exists, from a certain perspective, in the abstract. When you are a private lawyer, you find out how many problems there are out in the world and how many there are that can’t be solved.”

When you’re with the government, you’re 100 percent lawyer. But when you’re in private practice, you’re 50 percent lawyer and 50 percent businessman. And the business responsibilities can really get out of hand.

“If you open an office and make lots of money, it’s easy. If you’re not making money, you have to budget,” says George Tragos. “I can’t operate at a deficit as the U.S. Government does. Nobody ever said, ‘You can’t do this drug smuggling (case) because we can’t afford it.'”

For attorneys who plan to stay in business and prosper-perhaps even drop a shoe in the political arena-there is an even broader agenda to be considered in private practice.

“You become very conscious of not just your role in a given piece of litigation,” says Joseph Donahey, a partner in Clearwater-based Tanney, Forde, Donahey, Eno and Tanney, “but the practice you see over many years, the relationships you have with colleagues, the relationships you have with the bench. Your approach is different. When you’re a prosecutor, you’re not beholden to anybody. You can approach each case in any manner you choose.”

There is also the growing issue of attorneys who make campaign contributions to judges. Merkle supports blind trusts for judges or judicial candidates so that the influence of law firms making large financial contributions could not give a hint of judicial impropriety. “I guarantee you’ll see contributions go down,” says Merkle. “I’m not going to indulge in the practice I’ve heard other lawyers do-routinely contributing to incumbents on the bench. Somebody may get their nose bent out of shape by my saying there are incompetents on the bench. But there are incompetents on the bench.”

A potential drawback for a Bob Merkle-type attorney shifting gears is the distinct lack of limelight surrounding most lawyer’s everyday affairs.

“One of the things you really have to develop a means of handling is the hum-drum routine of all our lives,” says Joe Donahey. “I’m looking at a mound of work. I have the same commitment to each of these files yet there’s probably only two that that any challenge or any meaningful legal interest.”

Not every case, in other words, is a international drug cartel or politician with his fingers in the cookie jar. The average lawyer rarely makes headlines.

Spending time on the government payroll has been lucrative for many people who earn huge consulting fees, write books or end up as partners in nationally respected law firms. Some simply add marquee value; some bring real insight.

George Tragos has says when Bob Merkle was appointed to be U.S. attorney, the two discussed Tragos’ joining the team. Tragos told Merkle he couldn’t afford the pay cut but ultimately used his savings to maintain the lifestyle which he had become accustomed to as a high-price lawyer. “It was worth it,” says Tragos in retrospect. “I made contacts all over the country. Now my business is 60 percent federal.”

* * *

There are many stories floating around that reinforce the “Mad Dog” nickname Merkle earned as a young buck coming up through James Russell’s Pinellas County State Attorney’s office in the ’70s..

“Bob Merkle in the courtroom was like a linebacker bursting through the line,” says Denis M. de Vlaming. “He’s extremely intense, almost physically imposing. When he argued, he would walk right up to you and argue. Almost to the point of intimidation so his opponent cowers. It’s a style that’s only his.

“I went snow skiing in Vermont with him one year. I don’t know if I’d go again,” says de Vlaming. “He has to go faster than you, he has to go further than you. He has to beat you at everything. We had an argument over dinner. He always has to be right. He carries over that competitive aggressiveness into every aspect of life.”

“The guy is an excellent trial lawyer,” says George Tragos. “But if I see him in an airport-as well as we know each other-I have to say hello first. He’s not personable. That’s just the way he is. But I like him.

“You have two schools of thought,” says Tragos. “There’s people who really hate the guy. And there’s people who think he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. I think he did more good than bad. The people-they got their money’s worth with him. Not everything he did turned out right, but on balance, he did more good than bad.”

* * *

Is Bob Merkle merely on hiatus from public office? When he does run again, will it be for governor?

“Ah,” he answers, “the old question-resting-on-a-presumption trick.”

Those who know him best expect the “Mad Dog” to slip his leash again and run for office after feathering his private practice with a layer of cash insulation. “I personally think he’ll run for public office again,” says George Tragos. “I don’t think he can be happy so far out of the limelight. I don’t think money motivates him.”

Joe Magri—who knows exactly what his partner’s plans are—is cagier about making predictions.

“One of the important things in life,” says Bob Merkle’s law partner, “is that people who are doing that which they want to do tend to be the most happy and productive in life. If you spend the time swimming against your emotional current, you achieve less. I think it’s important for people to maintain the options that exist.”

If he does run again, Merkle will have to plan his next campaign better than his first, which began with just 70 days to go before the primary. (Connie Mack had been beating the hustings for more than a year.) The first campaign cost a remarkably paltry $70,000 but ate up Merkle’s federal retirement, money he lent to the campaign and another loan he is still paying off. But he has no regrets.

“It was an ad lib effort, an amateurish campaign by necessity. It was fun in that regard. I think I performed pretty credibly,” says Merkle.

Not surprisingly, Merkle isn’t ready to tip his hand. He certainly won’t rule out another shot at election-“it depends on a lot of things,” he says, then adds, “I have no intention of running for governor.

“I don’t have much patience with people who say, ‘You have to run for governor.’ I say, ‘Oh, yeah? Who’s going to feed my kids?’ I didn’t see anybody in October (after he lost the senate primary) offering to give me a hand. Not a soul. Bitter? No. Practical? Yes. I’ve been approached many times. I say, get real. Don’t talk ideals or how great I’d be. Talk the language. Talk about what I need to be an effective candidate. I’m a pretty tough, resilient guy. I was going 24 hours a day in that campaign. I’d be willing to do it again. But there’s got to be a germ of success. I’m not going to be somebody’s spear-carrier. There should be enough people now that know I’m a credible candidate.”

end

Bob Merkle Website • Wikipedia


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Thomas Huggins. He knows people. People you should know. PROFILE

Thomas Huggins, founder, Ariel Business Group, Tampa, by Bob Andelman
Thomas Huggins, founder of Tampa-based Ariel Business Group, featured on the cover of the Maddux Business Report. Story by Bob Andelman.

By BOB ANDELMAN

Written September 17, 2005

Maddux Business Report

Thomas Huggins knows people.

Construction people, engineers, environmental consultants, accountants, attorneys and all kinds of professional, small business people.

He’s made an entire business of knowing people, knowing people who know people, and knowing what some people are looking for in other people.
When governmental agencies and big businesses around the Tampa Bay area need to get a job done by a small, minority or disadvantaged business they often turn to Huggins’ 10-year-old Tampa consulting company, Ariel Business Group.

That’s what Skanska USA Building did.

When Skanska was preparing to bid on the design and construction of Tampa International Airport’s new outbound baggage handling system and security enhancements project in 2002, the general contractor knew that the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority required that a percentage of work on the system would be done by disadvantaged business enterprises – DBEs, in its bureaucratic lingo. (Other agencies and private companies may call them SBEs, for small business enterprises.)

“We understand that there’s more to dealing with a public entity than just building,” says Skanska Senior Vice President Jim Clemens. “You can’t follow a scorched earth policy in the local market. And there is a responsibility we have to support and understand the needs of the community. The taxpayers of this region have funded these projects. The taxpayer base is a reflection of those people in the community and therein lays the responsibility for an open-minded construction manager to ensure the work we do responds to the needs of the community. The original goal of the airport was 15 percent for this project. And we said, ‘We understand what you want to achieve.’ And we committed to a 20 percent goal right out of the chute. And we even beat that.”

Large government agencies maintain a list of certified DBEs in their area. The City of Tampa, for example, has a list of minority or disadvantaged businesses, as does the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. The challenge for many general contractors who may not be based locally is that they are provided with a quantitative list of names and phone numbers but no qualitative information about each outfit’s capacity. Ariel Business Group – and similar consultants – adds value by providing missing background on firms they have worked with and their capabilities for tackling a particular task. Beyond that, they have often worked with additional firms that may not be on an agency’s list but that can perform a needed service.

“The outbound baggage project was a highly visible project, one that a number of firms were going after,” Huggins says. “I had a meeting with Frank Fralick, who was then the president of Skanska locally (and is now executive vice president of Manhattan Construction Company in Tampa). We talked about his desire and interest in pursuing this project and having a strong diversity of firms. He recognized the commitment of the Aviation Authority and he made a commitment to having a diverse team on this project.”

Huggins says Fralick made a decision to “do it the right way.

“There are companies that really believe they can get around the SBE requirement by filling out some paperwork and not achieving the intent of the program, which is why it was installed in the first place, to create opportunities where opportunities didn’t previously exist. Frank took the higher road.”

Thomas Huggins, Ariel Business Group, Tampa, by Bob Andelman
Thomas Huggins, founder of Tampa-based Ariel Business Group

When Skanska won the baggage contract in mid-2002, Huggins and Ariel were immediately added to its team for the purpose of assigning $26 million (of the $130 million total budget) in subcontracting work. Individual contracts over the next three years ranged from $30,000 to $1 million. The baggage system was a design-build project that encompassed design, installation and construction.

“It wasn’t just bricks and mortar, either,” Clemens says. “It was high tech, very demanding. Our work couldn’t negatively impact aviation at Tampa International. It takes a special contractor. It’s like trying to build a new operating room at a hospital while there is an operation going on next door.”
What’s interesting is that Skanska USA Building has an office and presence in Tampa, unlike some contractors that may bid a project here but be based elsewhere.

“Do we turn to Ariel and a Thomas Huggins because we don’t know where to turn without them? No,” Clemens says. “We turn to them because they provide instant credibility in their community. They provide, in a real-time manner, which subs are capable – and which are not. Which are over capacitized and which are not. They bring a lot more to the table than a list of names. They understand the market and the firms available. Skanska knew of all these subcontractors before. Could we have done it without Thomas? Probably. But it would have made the job more difficult. He provides a service not unlike your insurance agent or attorney. He brings an expertise in an aspect of the market that we can’t provide on a full-time basis.”

Ariel started the process with a serious of informational meetings that introduced almost 40 minority and disadvantaged small business to Skanska and the dimensions of the project. Many had not worked for the airport or Skanska before. Clemens went through the project and provided background on Skanska and the scope and magnitude of the system. He also explained how, as a team, Skanska and Ariel intended to meet and exceed the Aviation Authority’s participation guidelines. (Not all the DBE firms went through this process but many did.)

Ariel had a continuing responsibility to the project from pre-start until closeout.

“We try to be proactive as opposed to reactive,” Huggins says. “We recognize the challenge of the larger firms. They inherently have budget issues and scheduling conflicts. We’re real cognizant of those issues. As we work with the disadvantaged companies, we want to be sure the DBE firms have the capacity to do their portion of the work. Being proactive, we want to ensure that we’ve covered the areas that potentially may be of concern: Can the company perform? Is there a need for performance bonding? Payment assistance? Our goal is to get the participating firms to look at (using DBE companies) as a process, not a project. They should be incorporated in the process of doing business.

“We not only are matching firms with capability,” he continues, “but we also are there to anticipate any conflicts, mediate any issues and alleviate problems. The goal is, get the project done, so everybody makes money and everybody walks away happy. This is business driven. The contractors are in it to make money. The subs are in it to make money. It’s only good in the end if everybody is happy. And that’s difficult to achieve in the construction business.”

Construction, as anyone who has ever hired a contractor for something as simple as a home renovation or as complicated as building an office tower, is a tough business. An awfully tough business.

“It’s a dog-eat-dog business,” says Huggins. “My passion for the subcontractors trying to enter it is you can be a great tradesman but you have to understand the business – the administration, the financial, the management aspect. All those components are critical in escalating your business. They’re critical to your overall success.”

The challenge for Huggins and his DBE network is in constantly upgrading not just their trade skills but also their industry savvy in ways that make them indispensable beyond earning set-aside project budgets.

“The majority of the minority subcontractor firms that worked on the airport project liked working for the contractor because of the relationships that developed,” Huggins says. “They were not easy contractors but they were fair; the contractors I talked to felt that. Skanska demanded performance; they demanded the best out of the subs. The subs respected them not only for being demanding but also being fair and respecting them.”

Clemens says the feeling was truly mutual.

“We got enthusiastic subcontractors that wanted to work, wanted to learn,” he says. “Because of that we achieved an even greater percentage than the goals for using disadvantaged businesses. We grew as a family on that project. All the ethnic and race divides withered away. Thomas and his leadership allowed that to occur.”

Skanska subsequently used some of the subs that Huggins introduced it to on other public – and private – projects in Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami-Dade.

The bottom line, of course, is the impact the DBEs have on the general contractor’s ability to profit from a job. But Clemens insists the equation isn’t that simple.

“Beyond the bottom line, we are helping to grow and cultivate in the Tampa Bay area a group of new and rising stars in the construction field,” he says. “We may not see immediate effects in economic aspects, but the market and community sees the creation of jobs and the stability of the competitive marketplace being improved. It isn’t all ‘Great Society’ stuff. It creates more qualified subcontractors, not just more qualified disadvantaged minority subs. These are newly confident people available to the airport five years out. The next group of subs will be stronger and better positioned as a result of these programs.

“My mission statement is to satisfy my customer,” Clemens continues. “My client is the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. Their interest is that the tax dollars that they use to fund projects provides a benefit that transcends back to the community at some level. That is my job. Yes, we’re in business and business is capitalistic and there is a profit motive involved. But at the end of the day, the way I’m graded is on the level of client satisfaction that I bring. And I need to meet, at the most basic aspects, the goals my customer establishes for disadvantaged participation. I have it in a contract. For me to be profitable and not meet those goals, they won’t have me back.”

So what did the companies Huggins recommended do?

“A little bit of everything,” according to Clemens. “We had contractors that installed the baggage conveyor systems. We had electricians, welders, plumbers, excavators and underground utility providers. It wasn’t a bunch of guys who pushed brooms and threw out the garbage.”

And not only was the baggage system completed on time in April 2005 and work well, it won a major industry award. The National Construction Management Association of America gave Skanska its 2005 Project Achievement Award in the category of “Public Project with a Construction Value Greater than $100 million.”

“It’s a fantastic honor,” Clemens says.

• • •

Thomas Huggins gets high marks from everyone with whom the Maddux Business Report spoke. Huggins, 45, is a past-chairman of the Tampa Urban League and current chairman of the Hillsborough Community College Board of Directors, having been appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999.

He truly is a people person.

“He’s just a real easygoing guy,” says Mary Hall, legal affairs director for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority, another Ariel client. “And he’s got a good team. In all this time, I’ve never seen him not have a suggestion or a solution. He’s a good team player.”

That view is echoed by Skanska’s Jim Clemens.

“Our relationship has grown to be very friendly,” Clemens says. “We went from working associates to friends. He’s a great guy, hard working, whose career reflects his personality and work ethic, which is refreshing in the construction business. He has a very high threshold for dealing with difficult situations.”

But what is Huggins actually like as a man?

He’s been married for almost 20 years to his wife, Belinda, with whom he has two sons and two daughters. The oldest son plays football at The Citadel.

“Thomas is a pretty good guy,” says his friend of six years, Rea Remedial Solutions, Inc. President Kevin Simmons. “When I started my business – I used to work for Westinghouse and decided to open my own environmental firm – I met Thomas. Our firm was getting qualified to work for DOT through its bonding program and Thomas was running that program through Florida A&M University. I took the certification course through Ariel in St. Petersburg and Thomas taught the class. After I got certified by DOT, I came back and taught some classes for him. He gave me the old pitch about giving back. Thomas is good about being sure that those people who get help getting a leg up help the next guy.”

Simmons, who is African-American and the majority owner of his Valrico-based environment construction and engineering and assessment firm, has since worked on two projects referred by Ariel at Tampa International Airport, one for Skanska and one for Beck. He is currently working on another Ariel arranged assignment, the Selmon Crosstown Expressway expansion.

“Thomas has been a real proponent for minority business,” according to Simmons. “He’s done a real service in terms of helping small and disadvantaged businesses establish themselves through the cities, counties and state. He has a heartfelt view of helping and it comes out. He has made some introductions for us. By being the liaison for Beck and Skanska, it’s his job to understand the capabilities of those businesses. Once he knew what we could do and what they need, he was instrumental in getting us that introduction. “

Okay, okay, he’s a great humanitarian. But what’s he like?

“To be honest with you, Thomas is kind of a dry guy,” says Simmons. “There’s no wild side, no wild story to be related. He’s very into politics; he’s an African-American Republican. And he’s proud of being able to say it. A lot of African-American Republicans keep that to themselves.”

• • •

Like a lot of successful businesspeople in the bay area, Thomas Huggins relocated to Tampa from somewhere else; in his case, it was Charleston.
Huggins, who is originally from Green Cove Springs, Florida, received a degree in business and finance from the College of Charleston, SC, where he also played basketball.

Arriving here, he spent his first days working in the payroll accounting department of Hardaway Construction during its construction of the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Nights he worked for the St. Petersburg Times in it printing plant, folding and processing newspapers.

In 1983, Huggins was hired by Community Federal Savings & Loan, the only African-American, multicultural bank in the city at the time. From there, he worked for consulting firms such as Boone, Young & Associates and Laventhol & Horwath doing small business consulting. At each firm he worked with the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“During that time, we worked a lot with small businesses, particularly construction companies, on major projects in the area,” Huggins says. “We worked on diversity issues, primarily business related, and minority business development programs. We were versed in the procurement and contracting arena and some of the challenges minority businesses were facing at the time.”

Huggins’ responsibilities included assisting small businesses with financing, developing business plans, and obtaining financing through the Small Business Administration and local banks. “We were identifying contracting opportunities for small businesses with the government and private sector. We educated them on the procurement systems and entering the construction arena. At the time, I managed a five-person staff that provided those services,” he says.

Fees at both consulting firms paid by small business clients were offset by the Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency. The idea was giving small, disadvantaged and minority businesses a better opportunity to compete for both jobs and access. “DOC’s goal was to have an avenue where minority business would receive technical assistance to promote business development,” Huggins says. “They wanted them to get the same assistance offered to mainstream firms through CPA firms. That is otherwise prohibitive to small business, so the DOC contracted with firms to provide that assistance at a subsidized rate. So instead of $200 an hour, the firms that came in might pay $100 or $75 an hour.”

As it turned out, the DOC indirectly subsidized Thomas Huggins’ future as well.

“I gained a tremendous amount of experience,” he says.

No surprise then that when Boone closed its Tampa office in 1996, Huggins went out on his own and hung a shingle as the head of Ariel Business Group.

“I felt that there was a niche, a void, in the area as it relates to the emerging business market,” he says. “Businesses that are under $2 million in revenue needed managerial and organizational assistance, all the way down to individuals that were micro-businesses in needed of assistance in starting a business.

“And,” he says, laughing, “I needed a job.”

Huggins felt it was the right track for him; when Boone shut down, he didn’t apply for any other jobs with existing firms. “This was the direction that I was led to go,” he says. “Being a spiritual man, this is where my prayer was. I asked for direction and guidance from God and this was the direction that he led me.”

Seems logical. But when you say you’re a “consultant,” there are a lot of consultants that do a lot of things. To provide some credibility early on,

Huggins’ goal was not just be another consultant working from home, going from one client to another.

“I wanted to develop a business,” he says.
In the early days, Ariel consisted of Huggins and a part-time administrative support person. Today, he still runs a lean operation, helped by a vast computer database and a staff of five, including Melanie Mitchell, who was the project manager on the airport and expressway jobs.

“Relationships are important,” Huggins says. “The real issue for us is understanding the needs of the client, understanding the individual finance-making industry and what their likes and dislikes.”

Over time, Huggins broke Ariel up into three service areas:

• Management, advisory and program administration services;

• Corporate and diversity training to senior level management and governmental agencies – “We’ve not only worked for government agencies,” Huggins says, “but they’ve asked for our help on the public policy side to develop minority policies”;

• Work with individual firms to do contract compliance and small business outreach on construction related projects.

“On the emerging business side,” Huggins says, “we still work with individual small businesses with revenues below $1 million that seek assistance in procurement and understanding the government bureaucracy, as well as individuals seeking financing.”

Ariel’s annual revenues are in the “mid six figures” according to Huggins. He bills clients by the hour for services rendered, using the same time-tested approach as lawyers and accountants. The amount is not, he emphasizes, based on the DBE budget for a project. And Ariel does not charge the SBE firms it introduces to its clients. “That’s considered double-dipping and I wouldn’t do that,” Huggins says.

His goal, he says, is to see his small business clients outgrow him.

• • •

The Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority – the government agency that operates the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway and the Veterans Expressway – hired Ariel Business Group as its official small business enterprise authority for construction of the new $400 million expansion of the existing Selmon Expressway. It was one of several consulting firms that responded to an RFP for an SBE consultant.

“We were centered on getting as much of the construction work distributed to small businesses as possible,” explains the Authority’s legal affairs director Mary Hall. “We’re a small agency. We couldn’t by any stretch license or register or maintain an independent contractor list the way city or county do. Our board decided that if a company is on the list on any governmental agency in a seven-county area they could be on our database. Ariel was hired to try to get the word out that these jobs are available through the authority and they’ve been pretty successful.”

As it did with the airport project, Ariel participates in weekly expressway construction meetings with the major contractors to keep abreast of performance and evolving needs.

“The firms say, ‘Over the next two weeks we’re working on whatever.’ Then Ariel goes back to their database and tells companies what is coming up this week,” Hall says. “The small companies wouldn’t have known about us because we’re not typically in the construction business. They can’t bid these huge jobs; they have to be subs.”

Ariel impresses its clients on both ends by staying involved in the process.

“Sometimes they come up with issues we don’t hear about, such as delays in payment,” Hall says. “They act as the SBE’s representative and they get through some sticky issues that always resolve satisfactorily. One time, for example, there was a delay in payment to a sub. That’s a hardship. Once the general contractor confirmed the work was satisfactory, we expedited payment to the sub based on Ariel’s intervention. They work closely with our project accountant. That’s how they track the SBE participation. We have a reporting system that involves everyone.”

The Expressway Authority requires any contractor with which it does business to follow its SBE policy. “Whenever they have any work effort, they’re encouraged to look for SBE firms. Our construction policy requires that the contractor have a similar policy to ours; most of them already do,” Hall says. “We don’t just say it and let it sit on the shelf. We require they participate.”

• • •

There’s something different about Thomas Huggins from other small business enterprise consultants that Jonathan Graham has worked with before.

“He’s professional,” says the Graham, of Horus Construction Services in St. Petersburg. “I’ve dealt with Thomas for about four years. We had an opportunity through him with the Hillsborough County school district. We also worked with him on a Palm Beach contract.”

The mark of an effective SBE consultant is that the agency or company that hires him or her has the power to enforce participation.

“If they’re just there as a show – ‘We, as a corporation, do outreach but the construction managers do what they want,’ there’s no value,” Graham says. “But if they want to take the advice of the consultant, such as Thomas, it’s a good thing. But we’ve found people want to work with people they know. Big companies know majority subcontractors. They don’t know minority contractors. People put up a front, ‘We’d like to work with minority contractors’ but they don’t know them and don’t take chance to get to know them.”

Kevin Simmons says that when it comes to opening his network, recognizing or seizing opportunity, Thomas Huggins doesn’t see people of color, sex or ethnicity, just opportunity.

“He’s been a real incubator for getting women-owned or (non-disadvantaged) small businesses started. He’ll say, ‘Here’s a good accountant.’ Or they say. ‘Thomas Huggins from Ariel said to see you.’ Or Thomas will call in advance and say, ‘This guy is coming to see you; he needs help.’ It’s a nice little network.

Ariel Business Group Website

(This version of the story may be somewhat different than the published version.)

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Q & A: Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman! MADDUX REPORT 1991

(This interview with Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman was recorded in March 1991 for the Maddux Report.)

Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman
Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman

Sandy Freedman’s fingerprints are all over her city. In typical big city fashion, nothing of any significance happens in Tampa these days without the mayor’s nod of approval or hands-on contribution. It’s evident in the Tampa Convention Center — for which she had final approval of details down to the color scheme — and the arrival of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey franchise, which she personally rallied the National Hockey League Board of Governors to award. She participated in the city’s successful efforts to lure Salomon Brothers to Tampa and pushed the coming Florida Aquarium from dream to reality.

The mayor — who won re-election in February with the support of a crushing 73 percent of the electorate — made a reputation for herself during his first term as what she calls a “facilitator,” someone with a knack for bringing parties to the table to work out their differences. It was her influence that broke down years of mistrust between Tampa and St. Petersburg and set the stage for such infant trans-bay organizations as the Tampa Bay Partnership and the Tampa Bay Congress of Chambers of Commerce. She went to St. Petersburg to meet with the National League Expansion Committee in February and express the entire Tampa Bay area’s support for a baseball franchise in the Florida Suncoast Dome.

She says her early days in the office were awkward as city staff and business leaders struggled to adapt to not just Tampa’s first woman chief executive but to a mayor decidedly different in style and execution from her predecessor, Bob Martinez.

Still, however, she is a lioness searching for a voice, as her quiet asmidst the racial storm of the cancelled Gasparilla invasion and parade demonstrated. It was the perfect episode for the mayor of harmony to take a stand and be heard, yet she was largely silent, preferring to stay in the background.

Freedman talked with the Maddux Report for an hour in her city hall office in April, the day after she was sworn in for her second term.

MADDUX REPORT: You were re-elected by a landslide, probably making you the most powerful woman in Florida …

SANDY FREEDMAN: I never think about that. I hope I’m a good role-model for women. That’s the only way that comes into mind. It does say that women can be in executive positions, not just legislative position, that woman can lead and do well and have the support of the public as they’re doing it.

MR: What does it mean for Tampa that you did so well, that you established clearly that you are the mayor of all of Tampa?

SF: What it says is that people like the direction the city is in now, the direction we’ve taken these last four years and they want to continue along that course.

MR: What message did your victory sent to the citizens of Tampa and the city council in terms of your mandate and your ability to govern.

SF: One of the things I was interested in was winning big. Because there were an awful lot of things that I started and I wanted to continue. I think the margin lets everybody know that the public is supportive of those things and they want to keep ’em going, whether it’s the housing program or economic development. I hope they’re going to remember that as we move into new areas and that the public widely supported me. I might REMIND ’em on occasion. (She laughs.)

MR: You’re widely thought to be someone who’s low-key, a behind the scenes person, not a grab-’em-by-the-lapels mayor — almost a contradiction in a ‘strong mayor’ form of government.

SF: When you’re my size you can’t grab people by the lapels. (She laughs.) Kick ’em in the shins, maybe.

MR: What tops your agenda for the next four years?

SF: We will contine working on reducing crime in creative ways. It’s not just hiring more cops. The housing programs, which, of all the things I’ve done, I’m most proud of them. They’re really helping people. We’re going to continue them and fine-tune. We’re doing one pilot project, rebuilding and revitalizing, in effect, an entire neighborhood. If we make that one work, we’ll be able to take that model to other neighborhoods. I’m confident we’re going to get a convention hotel, but on terms the city can afford and handle, as opposed to someone else’s terms.

Hopefully some of the things that are the hardest to do — race relations, the arts — will be in better shape.

MR: How would you describe your style of governing?

SF: It’s a different style than this community is used to. And I think that’s why it’s was hard early on for some people to understand, even for some of the staff members. It was very different from the way Bob Martinez dealt.

I work in a very open way. People are in and out all day. It’s not a closed, inner circle and then another circle, as might have been the case in the past. Everybody has access to this office. It’s a very democratic kind of thing. Everybody shares their ideas, free-for-all. We don’t sit around a conference table; I’m not comfortable there. We kick around ideas and then I say okay, this is the way we’re going to do it. And everybody gets behind it.

I think it works. The people who work with me — I don’t think they’re scared out of me. They know I can be tough and I can be a taskmaster, but I don’t ask of them anything I don’t ask of myself.

It’s low-key, behind-the-scenes much of the time, non-traditional, maybe. There’s a lot of team building. We do some things out of the office, we socialize together. We spend more time together than we do with our families so we better like each other. There’s a lot of humor, a lot of laughter, a lot of kidding. There’s a great deal of camaraderie.

I get around a lot to the departments. If I need information, instead of asking them to come here, I go there. It helps for people to see me, to know I care about what they do. I probably know more people by name than any other mayor ever has. I like people. Maybe that’s the difference.

MR: You have been given credit for a number of things that have happened during the last four years — hockey, Salomon Brothers, the convention center, the Florida Aquarium. What do you think your contribution to these things has been?

SF: Often times I’m a facilitator. I take pride and some degree of credit in getting the convention center done on time and on budget. Every Wednesday morning I got a report on progress from the moment that project began to insure it came in on time and on budget. My credibility and the fortune of the city was at stake and I wasn’t going to let it get away from me.

Hockey, that was one of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of things. I’ve been given a lot of credit, but I think I just said, ‘Let’s pick up the pieces. You get the private financing and I’ll go down (to the NHL Board of Governors meetings at The Breakers in Palm Beach) and make the pitch for you.’ But I think they wanted to give Phil Esposito a franchise. There was an electricity when he walked in the room that is a very rare thing to see.

MR: There was a great picture of you holding a hockey stick over your head after the team was awarded …

SF: I hated that picture. Everybody else loved it. I guess it was because it was very different for me.

Women who started in politics a long time ago came along at a time when there were very few women involved in politics, when we really had to be smarter, be better, do more homework. At least we thought we did. We were held up to a microscope, much more so than the men who were elected. As a result of that, a lot of us developed what appears to be a level of intensity, much more thoughtful, less humorous, less frivolous. That has kind of carried over with me. That’s why it’s still hard for me to see myself with a hockey stick.

MR: What did Salomon Brothers ask of the city that the city could — and could not — deliver?

SF: They asked very little, quite honestly.

I think they knew the answers but in the early stages had to have discussions as to whether they could have tax incentives, tax abatements, the normal questions that everybody asks. I think they had well-researched this area and knew what the Florida Constitution allowed and also what it prohibited. They really didn’t ask much. They were very receptive to the few offers we made — the partnership school concept, which I took to them very late. They were very very enamored with the concept and they are going to be implementing it in conjunction with the Hillsborough County school system. We certainly offered to help facilitiate the process through permitting. Not to give them anything, but to help make sure that things move as quickly as possible. We’ve done that for others and will continue to do that.

I think they were most especially interested in the feel for the community, the receptivity to the top people who came down. They were interested in housing, the arts.

MR: Was there anything Salomon Brothers wanted that you just couldn’t give them?

SF: I don’t recall anything that ever came up that they said, ‘We have to have this,’ and we had to say no, we can’t provide it for you.

MR: You have maintained a very strong hand in negotiations for a convention center hotel, turning back some well-known, would-be developers. What were they asking for that the city can’t or won’t deliver?

SF: They’re asking more than we’re able to deliver or even want to deliver. I don’t think the city of Tampa — as interested as we are in getting a convention hotel in close proximity to the facility — should be in the convention hotel business. And some of the requests made of us have been to, in effect, own a piece of the rock. Not to own it, but we would have to put so much in, that in effect, we would be kinda partners even though we wouldn’t own it. I don’t want to do that, I don’t think the public wants that. There are certain things we can work with and they’ve been widely reported, from the parking situation — we’ve got a couple little parcels down there that might be part of the deal — and there’s a little bit of tax increment financing money, maybe some help with the meeting rooms. But owning half a hotel, in effect, is not what we’re going to do.

MR: Is there anything in particular holding up the process right now?

SF: I think the economy certainly hasn’t been in our favor. Land prices down there have been very, very high, although they seem to be coming down a little bit, which may help facilitate the deal.

I’m pretty confident that in the not too distant future we’re going to see something happen down there. I don’t have anything to announce — but there’s more interest in the last couple months than there was in the six months prior to that.

MR: You have made a mini-career of bringing together disparate groups and telling them to meet, talk among themselves and work together.

SF: I’m glad that I’ve been able to fill the facilitator’s role. It will mean more to me if those things become long-lasting. That’s one of the reasons why the way I operate is different. Some people say I should stand here, pound the desk and say, ‘THIS IS THE WAY IT’S GONNA BE!’ I don’t view that behavior as being for long-term progress. I think the community has to come together. I see my role as bringing those forces together for the long-term interest.

MR: Will Bob Ulrich’s decision to step aside as mayor of St. Petersburg interrupt the mood of cooperation across the bay?

SF: No. I think it’ll continue. David Fischer and his wife were at my swearing-in ceremony. Bob Ulrich was also there. That never would have happened four or five years ago.

I don’t know David Fischer at all, but I know of him and I’m real comfortable with him.

MR: Would you favor a Tampa BAY Sports Authority if a Major League Baseball team is awarded to St. Petersburg? What about a Tampa Bay United Way for the arts?

SF: I’m not sure I favor a Tampa Bay Sports Authority or a Tampa Bay United Way for the arts.

As much as I support regionalism, there are always going to be times — and there should be times — when we maintain our separate identities. Yes, we should work together on sports, but no, I don’t think we ought to have a Tampa Bay Sports Authority.

MR: How would you describe your relationship with the business community?

SF: I think I have a good relationship with the business community. There were times early on that maybe it wasn’t as good as it is now, but I think that was because I was somewhat unknown to them as a chief executive. My style is very different. I don’t just call a half-dozen people for advice. I call a LOT of people. And so I think there might have been some people who thought they were cut off.

I’m very supportive of good, sound economic development.

MR: Do you consider yourself and your administration pro-business?

SF: I think we’ve demonstrated that we are.

MR: What do you think of the Hillsborough County Commission’s proposal to establish its own economic development commission?

SF: I think it’s a mistake.

Government does some things very well and some things we don’t do very well. I think we need to acknowledge that. I don’t think this is an area government could do really well. We can help facilitate economic development, clearly, by our actions as well as our resources. But I think the Committee of One Hundred has done quite well; I think they can do better. There’s been a fragmentation of economic development with the proliferation of University North, the Parkway Association, Ybor City, downtown, Westshore — which hasn’t necessarily accrued to the benefit of the overall economic picture.

Personally I would hope there would be some pulling in of all of those in more of an umbrella effort, so that those resources that are expended in all of those areas might be more efficiently administered. But I don’t think it ought to be done by government.

MR: So you don’t favor the creation of another EDC.

SF: Absolutely not.

One of the frustrations (of the county commission) — and I have felt it myself — is as a public official you’re expected to know everything. And yet there’s an arena in which you can’t know everything. There’s a confidentiality when you’re dealing with corpprate relocations. Even as the mayor, I don’t know all the people or groups that we’re wooing. And I shouldn’t.

MR: There was probably one election issue that no one was happy with you about and that was your handling of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. You were uncharacteristically silent about the Krewe’s unwillingness to take in blacks, women and minorities, seemingly unwilling to take sides, unwilling to alienate the black coalition or the white power brokers who make up the Krewe. In the meantime, as the sports world prepared to come to town for Super Bowl XXV, Tampa’s national image took a beating in the press. Was it a mistake to not be more outspoken?

SF: I don’t know that I was silent. I said the city wouldn’t participate any longer (in the Gasparilla parade) with our services, the policemen, clean-up and everything else.

I’ve thought that one through dozens, hundreds of times probably by now. What could I have done differently, what would have been better? And I haven’t figured it out yet. I worked from day one behind the scenes, trying to bring the parties together, trying to get the Krewe to integrate, trying to make order rise from chaos and (Tampa received) a black eye, a nationwide black eye. But I don’t know what could have done differently.

MR: Did you not get a sense that people on both sides were waiting for you to come out on one side or the other?

SF: Yeah, yeah. But either way was a losing proposition. I think it was handled poorly all the way around from a public relations standpoint. I tried very hard to get that moderation between all the folks that were involved. I’m not sure that I could have handled it any better; perhaps if others had reduced the rhetoric and maybe belayed their actions … It was a painful thing. But sometimes, no pain, no gain. We’re gonna be a stronger community as a result of it.

MR: Will Gasparilla return to the city?

SF: We’ll have to wait and see.

MR: And if it does, will the city be involved with the Krewe?

SF: If the Krewe wants to put on a parade with the support of the city, then it’s going to have to be an inclusive organization.

MR: Cecil Edge said your fingerprints are on every downtown building built in the last four years and every building that will rise for the next four years. (The mayor laughs.) Do you have a clear vision for downtown?

SF: I think I have a pretty good vision for downtown. We put together the downtown plan to help articulate that vision. That’s to give everybody guidelines, to put everybody on a level playing field.

I have a vision. I’d like to see the waterfront very people-oriented. I would not like to see it walled-in with high-rise buildings where you couldn’t see the water or there was no green space. I think we have had the last of our buildings that is going to be concrete and steel, sidewalk to sidewalk. I hope we have. I think there’s going to be public art in downtown. I hope we will attract more retail and housing. Those are tricky, very tough. I hope the architecture will be architecture people will view in and of itself. Good architecture doesn’t cost more money.

MR: What will drive the Tampa Bay market in the next decade?

SF: I think we’re learning that we’ve got to have more homegrown. The SRI study proves that to be a reality. There aren’t that many corporate relocations out there. The real value-added is going to come from within and it should. We ought to have an environment that can nurture that.

MR: Your predecessor used this office to leap first into the governor’s mansion and now the president’s cabinet. What’s ahead for you?

SF: I get asked that question at least once a day. I don’t know what’s ahead. My schooling, my degree, was in local government. I get a great deal of reward and personal satisfaction from what I do. It’s probably a good thing that I can only serve two terms. But who knows? Maybe if there wasn’t a charter revision, maybe I’d want to keep on going. There’s a lot to do in this community and a lot I’d like to be involved with.

end

Tampa Bay Times calls Stadium For Rent (Second Edition) “Notable” for 2015 baseball season!

Stadium For Rent by Bob Andelman, Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay Rays
Order ‘Stadium For Rent: Tampa Bay’s Quest for Major League Baseball’ by Bob Andelman, now available in an expanded, updated and illustrated 456-page special edition, available from Amazon.com by clicking on the book cover above!

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Copyright 2015 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman

Bungle in the Jungle: Remembering the late Sam Hall (JUMP)

JUMP_Monthly_cover_July_1987_Sam_HallWhen the Tampa Bay Times published the obituary of Sam Hall on September 4, 2014 (he died August 11, 2014), I was reminded of a Q&A interview that Connie May Fowler–then still going by her pre-best-selling novelist name, Constance May–wrote for Jump Monthly magazine. Jump was a Tampa Bay area, city-style magazine that I published for four issues. And the Sam Hall story was on the cover of the fourth and final issue. It was a great conversation with the former Olympian, Dayton, Ohio, mayor and two-term member of the Ohio State House of Representatives who went on to be a hugely controversial figure as a self-proclaimed counter-terrorist/soldier of freedom.

The irony of the situation between Hall and Fowler was that her fame as a writer a decade later eclipsed his as a figure involved in Ronald Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal. When Hall died, he was a little-remembered man, a footnote in geopolitical history. By contrast, Fowler today is the Oprah Winfrey endorsed author of Before Women Had Wings, How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly, and many more successful literary titles.

As a side note, before publication of this interview, Connie May and I were good friends. She kept me busy with assignments when she was editor of a regional computer newspaper, The Data Bus–where I eventually succeeded her–and when I started Jump, she conducted this interview for me for free. To be honest, Connie May absolutely hated the headlines I put on the cover, “Bungle in the Jungle: The Private Wars of Sam Hall,” and on the inside, “Send Lawyers, Guns & Money: For Soldier of Freedom Sam Hall, Happiness is a Warm Gun. Shoot, Shoot.” In my defense, I was trying to be provocative, trying to attract eyeballs, trying to stay in business.

Connie May ripped me a new one over my choice of words and hasn’t spoken to me since, although for the last few years we have been friends on Facebook, so I’m hoping she’s no longer mad and that sharing this 27 years later won’t reopen the rift. As for Hall, he made one threatening call to me about it, but nothing else happened. I suspect he gave her a load of crap about it, which set her off on me.

I’m sharing this here, now, because Hall has died and history still hasn’t definitively made up its mind about the guy. And I still think Connie May did a bang-up job dealing with this mystery wrapped inside of an Iran-Contra enigma. — Bob Andelman


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A Day in the Life of Bill McBride and Alex Sink, 1989! FLORIDA BUSINESS

(Former Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride died suddenly today, December 23, 2012. It saddened me greatly as I always enjoyed interviewing him and just being in his company over the years. He and his wife, Alex Sink, were delightful people and I think I captured a moment in time with them pretty well in this profile, originally published in Florida Business/Tampa Bay, 1989.)

It’s Friday, almost 7 p.m., and Bill McBride is driving his pale blue Jaguar XJ6 — the one with the baby seat in back — to Simon Schwartz, where he’ll buy groceries to make dinner for a client who is coming by at 8 to meet his wife, Alex. She’s due in on the air shuttle from Miami any minute. That’s why he’s describing his life as one of Florida’s most influential attorneys while squeezing produce, grabbing six-packs of Amstel Light and Kirin Dry and directing the butcher to five juicy N.Y. strip steaks.

“If I’m tired, one of the reasons is our little girl has been waking up at 3 a.m. and not going back to sleep,” explains the Tampa managing partner of Holland & Knight. “And I’ve been staying up with her.”

Bill McBride and Adelaide “Alex” Sink are happily married with two young children, Bert and Lexie. They are a thoroughly modern couple.

He lives in a comfortable home in Tampa’s Palma Ceia neighborhood. She has a condominium in Coconut Grove, a suburb of Miami, because that’s where her job as a senior vice president with NCNB National Bank of Florida is. The kids — ages 20 months and 17 weeks — live in Tampa with Dad. Mom jets home to see them on the weekends.

“It’s a pretty interesting story,” says Jim Chandler, vice president of public affairs at NCNB National Bank of Florida. “They live lives in different cities and still make time to make babies.”

Commuting gained a whole new definition when Bill and Alex tied the knot three years ago. Not only do they commute to work, they commute to married life.

“Every once in a while we question whether Alex is working in Miami or in Tampa,” jokes Tamara Klinger, communications manager of the United Way of Dade County, where Sink is on the board of directors. “I think she spends most Fridays on an airplane.”

ALEX SINK: “When Bill came along … He was a professional, well established in his career and he was a Democrat. When he told me on the first date he was getting ready to go to the Democratic National Convention as a Gary Hart delegate, I thought, ‘This is the right man.’ Because I had made up my mind I wasn’t going to marry a Republican.” 

The shoes of McBride, 44, and Sink, 40, are not ones in which most of us would comfortably fit. McBride is one of three managing partners at Florida’s largest law firm, Holland & Knight, where he oversees 250 lawyers. Sink is among the highest ranking women at NCNB. They see each other primarily on weekends, but sometimes in one city or another as business needs dictate.

“We have a big office down there, so I have to go down a lot,” says McBride. “And her headquarters is here in Tampa with NCNB. So we go back and forth. If we didn’t have that relationship, it wouldn’t be easy.”

“I used to read about these marriages,” says Sink, who married McBride two years ago. It is her second time around, his first. “When the idea was first being thought about, you’d read about these high-powered New York/Washington couples and you’d think, ‘How foolish!’ And now I’m in the middle of it.”

Gregg Thomas, a partner at Holland & Knight in Tampa, says the lawyer’s co-workers have a great appreciation of McBride’s unusual lifestyle. “I think it’s just accepted that she’s on a career path that’s as important as his. I think it’s neat he’s taking as much care of Bert as he does.”

The McBride/Sink courtship lasted two years and was largely based on airline schedules, a warm-up for married life. When they finally wed, the pair shared shelter for nine whole months before a promotion and better money in Miami was too good to refuse.

“Bill was going into the office Saturdays and Sunday mornings,” remembers Sink. “I would go in on Saturdays and stay late. I became convinced that when you added up the hours we spent together, it’s about the same. I never thought we would go back to commuting. I stay late in Miami so when I come (to Tampa) for the weekend I don’t have to think about work. And he does much the same thing.”

Sink oversees NCNB’s consumer banking services in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. That translates into 75 bank branches, 800 employees and $2 billion in deposits.

“Her job in Miami is a good one,” says McBride. “My wife is the highest ranking woman officer in NCNB. She is on the executive committee of the Chamber of Commerce in Miami, she’s on the United Way Board of Directors. She’s a pretty formidable person in her own right. My judgement is she should continue. So for now, the babies are staying with me. (I’m) sort of Mr. Mom.”

“He has much stronger mother’s instincts than I do with our children,” says Sink. “He has different sides, but he’s very soft-hearted.” Then, believing that might be misinterpreted, she adds, “I mean, nobody’s going to accuse Bill McBride of being a wimp.”

They make an unlikely couple for more reasons than sheer geography. She is a delicate, pretty, exotic looking woman with Oriental roots (her great-grandfather was one of the original Siamese twins) who grew up in Mount Airy, North Carolina. He is a stocky, gentle man from Leesburg who went to the University of Florida on a football scholarship (a bad knee subsequently kept him from playing) and served in Vietnam with the Marines.

McBride was ready to settle down and have a family when he turned 40; Sink wasn’t.

“I wasn’t looking to get married,” she says. “After the first marriage, I made up my mind to work at my career and get financially independent. I didn’t care about having kids, so there wasn’t that pressure. When Bill came along … He was a professional, well established in his career and he was a Democrat. When he told me on the first date he was getting ready to go to the Democratic National Convention as a Gary Hart delegate, I thought, ‘This is the right man.’ Because I had made up my mind I wasn’t going to marry a Republican.

“It’s like religion,” says Sink. “My politics are very important to me. I couldn’t see myself living with someone of a different philosophy or someone who was apolitical.”

Politics are an integral part of McBride’s life and are becoming more so by the day. When Hart didn’t work out in ’84, he signed on first with Joe Biden and then Michael Dukakis in ’88. There’s still a yard sign in the garage. “I’ve always been a Democrat,” he says. “I may be the last one.” A supporter of Bob Martinez when he was the Democratic Mayor of Tampa, he has closely aligned himself to the 1990 gubernatorial hopes of Rep. Bill Nelson (D.-Melbourne), a friend since they met in Key Club while McBride was at Leesburg High School and Nelson at Melbourne High.

Nelson and McBride have a long history together. The congressman is a frequent house guest. While in Tampa, McBride fills his friend’s days and nights with meetings and social engagements to help Nelson spread his political base across Central Florida.

“When we have time together, we make the most of it,” according to Nelson. “Bill would fill every available minute with meetings — over breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Sink has been drawn to the campaign by her husband’s friendship with Nelson. “When the guy comes and spends the night in your house about once a month for three years, you can’t help but get involved with him,” she says.

The bond between lawyer and politician is their shared goal of excellence in Florida’s future. “I think he’s the best. I give him a lot of money. I’m a fundraiser,” says McBride. “And I’m going to work on issues with him.”

“(McBride) has specific ideas about what ought to be done and the kinds of individuals that ought to do them. I went to him first, saying that I wanted to be governor,” says Nelson.

While McBride lacks an official position with the Nelson campaign, he doesn’t lack for influence. “He’s broadened my support in Hillsborough,” says the candidate, “and he’s been a help in fundraising. He has poured everything — his heart and soul — into it.”

“Bill — I call him a man of no moderation,” says Sink. “He does things 110 percent.”

But what kind of a business manager is Barrister McBride?

“I’ve never had trouble walking into his office and bitching and moaning about something going on,” says Holland & Knight partner Gregg Thomas, a media law specialist in the firm’s Tampa office. “He is the only peer who criticizes me, and I criticize him regularly. It’s a good, constructive relationship.”

Bill Nelson says you need only compare McBride’s age with his position to know how talented he is. “Bill has had an extremely rapid rise at one of the state’s most prestigious law firms. Law firms usually defer to managing partners who are very senior. And what’s Bill, 43, 44? That sort of speaks for itself.”

The partners of Holland & Knight must think a lot of McBride; they elected him in Jan. 1988 to a three-year term as a managing partner.

“I’ve worked with McBride for the last 10 years,” says Thomas. “I’m always amazed at him. I think he’s the reason we’re doing so well in Tampa. Tampa is a changing market. Through McBride’s leadership we realized we needed to reach out and find new and developing clients. He’s getting us motivated about being lawyers and being involved in our community. Being not only marketing-oriented but community-oriented has come from McBride.”

Atop the book shelves in McBride’s office sits a colorful, bearded wizard in flowing robes who has certainly worked his magicks upon the holder of the office. From his office on the 21st floor of new NCNB Building in downtown Tampa, Bill McBride balances tremendous responsibilities as a managing partner at Holland & Knight and one of several heirs to the mantle of his personal mentor and law firm founder Chesterfield Smith. That would be enough alone for most energetic men. But McBride also finds time to be a member of Nelson’s campaign for governor, a barrage of regional transportation committees and civic groups.

He is a mega-manager.

“Bill McBride is one of the most dynamic men I have ever known,” says his friend and associate on many transportation commissions, Joe McFarland, president of McFarland & Fries Financial Services. “He is really a go-getter, in spades.”

BILL McBRIDE: “When I was in the Marine Corps,” he recalls, “we’d come back from the woods in Vietnam. The number one thing we wanted to get was ice cream. One time they said they were going to get ice cream for dessert and then the freezer broke down. There was a riot.” 

And don’t lose site of his responsibilities at home; the live-in nanny cares for the kids all day, but they’re McBride’s to deal with after 7 p.m.

“I work a lot,” he says. “I don’t play golf, but I’m not a nut. I do a lot of public service stuff, probably more than most people. And I have a lot of good friends that work with me. I get a lot of support from my partners. I’ll do the job at hand without too much messing around.”

Alex Sink — and no one seems to ever refer to her as Mrs. McBride — has a similar no-nonsense approach to her career. She has worked hard to rise to prominence within NCNB, starting 15 years ago as a branch planning analyst in Charlotte. That’s when NCNB only had one name — North Carolina National Bank, not NCNB of Florida, Texas, et al. At Wake Forest she studied math and married soon after graduation. Her first husband work took them to three African countries where she taught school. But the relationship soured and, after three years, Sink returned home and joined the bank at age 25.

“One advantage I had was that I was single,” she says of her advancement. “If I wanted to stay out late, I had the flexibility. If I saw ‘the boys’ were going out for pizza or beer — and provided they invited me along — I went. I didn’t have that sense of exclusion that a married young woman might. Today, I’m one of the old-timers … Maybe I’m one of ‘the boys’ now.”

As a senior vice president, she has come full circle in terms of her job focus. Sink is again responsible for finding new branches for NCNB, but she also works on increasing consumer lending and deposits, overseeing employee training and developing new products. She is on the road a lot.

“Alex has been a star for a lot of years,” says Jim Chandler. “She’s gregarious, friendly, very outgoing. She’s loaded with energy. She works probably 80 hours a week, never slows down.”

Chandler calls Sink “a member of the team,” noting an independent study by the International Leadership Center in Dallas which identified her as the second most powerful woman in Miami.

“I’ll tell you a little story,” says Chandler. “It goes back to my early days with the company. I was flying to New York with Thomas Storrs, the retired president of the bank, and Buddy Kent, who is now chairman of NCNB Texas. Storrs told Kent, ‘I just made some business calls with a lady who was the best prepared executive I’ve ever dealt with on your staff. Every ‘i’ was dotted, every ‘t’ was crossed. Her name was Alex Sink.’ That was part of the secret of Alex’s success — being recognized as good and thorough.”

Community service and involvement is a commitment stressed in the lives of both McBride and Sink. They give time and money to causes and projects they believe in. It gives them character; it is also the tie that binds them together.

“My civic work is very important to me,” says Sink. “Things like the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce are an important part of our lives.”

Ray Goode, CEO of The Babcock Co. in Coral Gables and vice chairman of public affairs for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, says Sink does an “exceptional” job running the chamber’s state affairs committee. The committee is a political lobbying arm which promotes the chamber’s legislative package in Tallahassee. “She’s very knowledgeable about what’s going on in greater Miami and statewide,” according to Goode. “She has gotten to know the ‘actors,’ she knows where the sources are and knows how to work with these sources. She is a particularly relevant model to women who want to work and stay on the career path and start a family. She has proven that it can be done.”

“Alex has chosen to be a leader not only in her company but in the community,” agrees Tamara Klinger of the United Way of Dade County. “Each year, Alex has taken on a different role in the campaign and each year she comes through for us.”

As for McBride’s relentless devotion to community — he serves on the board of directors of United Way of Greater Tampa, Tampa Ballet, Tampa Downtown Partnership, Tampa Marine Institute and Tiger Bay Club of Tampa; founded the District VII Transportation Coalition and the Marion Street Transitway Coalition; works as a member of two state committees, the Gender Bias Study Commission and the Task Force on the Future of the Florida Family; and he is also chairman of a partnership conducting a human needs assessment for Hillsborough — he says that because lawyers have a legal monopoly on what they do, they have a greater responsibility than most professionals to give something back. “I trained under a lawyer — Chesterfield Smith — who said that’s how you should be. (The law) isn’t just a way to make money. You should work to make it better.

“Money has never been a motivating factor for me,” says the past-president of the Hillsborough Bar Association. “But I’ve been very lucky. I do very well — much better than I deserve. Maybe I do a lot of the free work to make myself feel better about leading such a luxurious life.”

A lot of lawyers do the same quality work. Who do you choose? Maybe the guy who gives back to the community. At least that’s the theme McBride follows. He says his motives are not entirely pure; he still has a law practice to build. But many would argue he has a hand in many more civic projects than would be necessary to impress the average citizen or corporate client.

Driving home from the grocery, McBride pulls into a drive-thru Farm Stores outlet. Being home a lot, McBride says he’s getting fat. “It’s a lack of willpower,” he says. “I like ice cream a lot. Don’t tell anyone I said so, but the best ice cream in the world is Farm Stores’. I think they pour as much sugar as they can in a carton with cream. It’s incredibly good. One of the best they have is chocolate chip.”

JOE McFARLAND: “Bill McBride is one of the most dynamic men I have ever known.” 

Ice cream, of all things, reminds the lawyer of his tour of duty in Vietnam. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in ’68 and went into the jungles as an infantry platoon commander, company commander, and combined unit commander of Marines and Vietnamese popular forces. A sword from the Marine Corps hangs proudly over the family fireplace.

“When I was in the Marine Corps,” he recalls, “we’d come back from the woods in Vietnam. The number one thing we wanted to get was ice cream. One time they said they were going to get ice cream for dessert and then the freezer broke down. There was a riot.”

At the house, the children’s nanny could probably use a cold beer, not chocolate almond ice cream. She is frazzled from hours of chasing McBride’s son around the house. “Bert’s at the stage where he wants to run all day,” says a dad who probably figures he’s got a chip off the old block.

“You know,” says Bill McBride, “the complaint I hear most from guys my age who got married early is they didn’t spend enough time with their kids. The most important thing to me up until now has been the law firm. Having children at 43 doesn’t even remotely resemble having kids at a younger age. I would not have been as good a father as I hope I’m going to be.”

There are advantages to having a spouse living 300 miles away. Think of the frequent flyer points. McBride and Sink used theirs to take a vacation in Australia last summer. While they probably won’t be able to do anything that extravagant again until the children are out of diapers, they do have a fishing boat in the Bahamas for summer vacations and long weekends.

Sink calls. Her flight is running late; she’ll probably miss dinner with the client. McBride takes it in stride. He’s bragged of his cooking prowess and will have an opportunity to practice on a business associate. That’s later; right now he’s playing with Bert, who looks like his mother, and Cheryl Alexander — “Lexie” — who looks like her mother.

“My wife calls her Lexie. I call her ‘Myrtle’ because it rhymes with ‘Bertle.’ That’s what I call Bert — Bertle the Turtle.” No one in the family, it seems, goes by their given names. McBride turns to his son, William Albert, who is coloring the daily newspaper on the coffee table with huge crayons. “Bert,” he instructs, “say, ‘E-I — E-I … ”

“O!!” shouts the little boy to his father’s glee.

Gregg Thomas, who brings his kids over to play with McBride’s, believes there are limits to the boss’s “Mr. Mom” act. Like changing diapers. “I said, ‘Bill, Bert’s got a problem with his pants. You got a diaper?’ He says, ‘No, Alex will be home in 15 minutes.’ So there are some things he doesn’t like to deal with.”

McBride goes to bed every night at 9:30, right after Bert. He wants more children; Sink doesn’t seem so inclined. “I worry a lot that I’ll be 60 and my kids will just be going to college. But I kinda accept things as they come,” she says. “On the other hand, “Five years ago, my company wasn’t prepared for women on the career-track to have children. Today we have a lot of benefits.”

The McBride/Sinks will settle on the one family, one city concept before too long. Both parents acknowledge that it’s inevitable. But where will they live? Whose career will have to give way to the best interests of the family?

“I sort of think those things take care of themselves,” says Bill McBride. “It’ll work out.”

 

Sidebar: Don’t Drive, He Said

 

Bill McBride has seized transportation as an issue very important to him. His outspoken views on mass transit solutions, outlined in the January, 1989 issue of FLORIDA BUSINESS, show him to be a supporter of innovative solutions to Tampa Bay’s stalled traffic patterns.

“He has become one of the acknowledged experts on transportation in Hillsborough County,” according to Rep. Bill Nelson.

Joe McFarland has served on many transit committees with McBride, who succeeded him as chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s Highway & Public Transportation Council in 1987. “He didn’t know the first thing about our transportation problems the first day took over our transportation council. But he’s a fast study. What he doesn’t know, he’s quick to tell you. One of the first things he perceived was that busing was in trouble. He decided we needed a group from the power structure who could be vocal.”

The result was the formation of the Marion Street Transitway Coalition, which successfully pushed for construction of a regional bus mall in downtown Tampa.

McBride is widely credited with founding the District VII Transportation Coalition, the first regional (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Pasco counties) organization in Florida to support area transportation needs and legislation. “He perceived we needed an overall constituency for regional transportation. He was the father of it. It was his baby,” says McFarland.

The credentials don’t end there. McBride is chairman of the Citizens Advisory Council to the Metropolitan Planning Organization; a member of the Rail Transit Study Management Team; co-chairman of the Hillsborough County Transportation Financing Alternatives Committee; organizer of the Advisory Committee on Hillsborough County Transportation Concepts; member of the Tampa Interstate Study Advisory Committee; and a member of Tampa’s Transportation Finance Committee (appointed by the mayor). — Bob Andelman

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Tampa’s Finest: Jane Castor worked her way up the ranks to make PD history (Maddux Business Report)

By BOB ANDELMAN
Maddux Business Report
(Cover Story)
May 2010

Let’s say that Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio made a list of the things she wanted to accomplish before the end of her second term. Among them might be:

• Complete the new Tampa Museum of Art;

• Complete Riverwalk;

• Save as many essential services jobs—police, fire and emergency services—as possible from severe budget cuts.

Nowhere on the list—we asked her to double-check—was making local history by naming a woman as police chief.

And not just any woman, but an openly lesbian woman.

“I don’t think like that,” Iorio said. “That’s not how I make appointments.

“The era of ‘the first’ is long over with,” the mayor adds. “She’s not the first female police chief across the nation. We’ve come too far for that. Women are in top leadership positions all across our nation.”

As for the gay thing? Might as well re-read the answer above.

“That’s not a factor at all,” according to Iorio. “I think we’re way beyond that as well. It’s not relevant. In my hiring it’s irrelevant. From the time I hired her, other than the media, I haven’t received a call, a letter or a single comment from a single person in Tampa regarding the issue. I knew Jane was capable and had a lot of the traits I looked for. It was actually an easy decision to make.”

In a lot of places in the South, this decision would have been riven with controversy and outrage. It was only three years ago, for example, that the city manager of Largo shocked the community he served for 17 years by announcing that he wanted to be a she. A backlash caused him to be fired.

But there is something different about Jane Castor, 50, who Iorio named Tampa’s new police chief on September 16, 2009.

“Pretty impressive individual, isn’t she?” asks Castor’s predecessor, Steve Hogue.

Indeed. And Castor is someone who—based on a photo published in the St. Petersburg Times of her working out in a police gym—could kick the butt of anyone who doesn’t think so.

• • •

Jane Castor is a product of Tampa, through and through. She grew up in the city, the fourth of five children, lettering in basketball, swimming, volleyball and track at Chamberlain High and attending the University of Tampa on an athletic scholarship, At UT, she became a figure of legend, a 1,000-point shooter on the women’s basketball team.

She credits growing up around so many boys—brothers, friends and classmates—with putting her on the path to a rewarding career in athletics that, in turn, opened the door to developing her leadership skills in the PD.

“I was involved in athletics my entire life,” she says. “Working out—that’s my stress relief. I tell everybody, the more I look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, the more stress you will know there is in my life… I think that you learn all of the life skills out there on the court or the field. You learn how to be a leader, you learn teamwork, discipline, and you learn how to lose and win gracefully… I think most people would describe me as very easygoing, but I don’t think they would ever mistake that for being weak.”

Her whole life, she’s rarely missed a day in the Cigar City. The longest time away was 10 weeks at the FBI Academy; she earned her masters degree from Troy State by attending classes at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

“I love this place,” she gushes. “My family, everybody around my family, my sisters-in-law and other people, always say that our family is not normal, because all of my brothers and sisters get along very well, and I could never leave. We all live here in Tampa, and we are very, very close. We have a very close family, and I could never imagine living anywhere else. I love this city.”

“She’s definitely homegrown,” Iorio says. “And that’s a great part of her selection. She knows so many people. She’s an integral part of the community. She’s comfortable in all neighborhoods. And it’s always nice when you’ve grown up in a community and then you’re able to serve it.”

And if all that weren’t enough, she’s just so damned likable.

“She is very well respected and liked in the law enforcement community and the community as a whole,” according to Hogue. “People that know her—and a lot of people do know her; she was already significantly better known and liked than I was—find she’s very down-to-earth. It’s a genuine quality that comes across to everyone she comes into contact with.”

• • •

Police Chief Castor has never fired her weapon in the line of duty.

Closest she ever came was on a call that, ironically, involved Steve Hogue. He had just made lieutenant and was riding around in a patrol car. A report came of a group of young men committing street-corner robberies with a shotgun, shooting people in the legs with birdshot.

Castor found the suspects’ car going into the Robles Park housing project and Hogue happened to be behind her.

“I assumed that they were all going to jump out and run,” she recalls, “so I was telling everybody, ‘Set up a perimeter, let’s get ready.’ When they turned down the main street through Avon down through Robles Park, they gunned it, doing about 80 mph, at which point my keen police skills told me they were not going to jump out, they were going to flee from me. I leaned down to turn on the siren, and I heard this loud ‘Bang!’ I looked up, and the passenger was leaning out the door with a shotgun, shooting at me!

“It was funny after the fact. I told everybody that my initial reaction was, ‘He can’t shoot at me, I’m a police officer!’”

Law enforcement is not for everybody. You are your own boss out there on the street; you never know what’s going to happen. Or as Castor puts it, “It can be boring one minute and terror the next. But it’s very exciting.”

• • •

One of the surprises Castor discovered on the job is how often this position will pull her away from the actual day-to-day operations of the police department if she allows it. There are a lot of requests for her to be the face of the Tampa Police Department, making public appearances in the community and with the department’s business partners.

“There is a lot of value in it,” she says, “but still, I’m a police officer at heart. That’s what I came into law enforcement for, so I want to get my hands dirty in the actual day-to-day operations of the police department.”

One of the time killers she has to face as chief that she didn’t as assistant is dealing with the media. One day it’s the Tampa Tribune or the Times, another it’s the Maddux Business Report or former E! TV anchor Steve Kmetko interviewing her for a gay website called MyQmunity.com about the unique responsibilities of being a lesbian police chief.

“Part of our job is to ask questions and get to the bottom of situations, but I always look at that as a give and take process,” she says. “You have to build relationships, even if it’s out on the street with a victim or a suspect, so I don’t mind reporters asking me questions. They’re not going to uncover anything earth shattering. I’m the same individual I was 26 years ago.”

• • •

An officer candidate goes through the police academy, graduates to walking or driving a beat, eventually moving up the chain of command. Not many rise to chief.

How does Officer Castor prepare to one day become Chief Castor, responsible for an organization with 1,300 employees and a $133 million budget?

“I’ve benefited by being able to work in just about every aspect of the police department,” Castor says. “When I first made major, I was sent to the administrative division. I told everybody that they had to drag me in kicking and screaming into that division, and then I did a mad dash out when I was released, because it really doesn’t have anything to do with police work. But in it, I worked with all of the areas that support police officers, and I learned exactly how the police department is run. My time in the administrative division was invaluable to me as a chief, learning the budget process, learning all of the different support elements of the police department and how they function, and how we interact with other city departments. All of that I learned in my time in the administrative division, so it was very, very valuable.”

• • •

One day, Castor and Iorio may find themselves on a Tampa porch somewhere in rocking chairs, remembering these as the good ol’ days.

Budgets will not be kind to the city in the next few years and certainly not to the police department in particular. Job cuts are almost certainly coming.

“Mayor Iorio has been very, very supportive of the Tampa Police Department,” Castor says. “We could not have been as successful in reducing crime as we have been without her support. She has told us in the last three years of this economic downturn to cut as much from our budget as we could without taking any police officers off of the street. That support has just been invaluable for us. If you look nationwide at other jurisdictions, usually the police department’s budget is one of the biggest, if not the largest, in any city, and close to 90 percent of that budget is personnel. So to be able to make any meaningful cuts without taking police officers away is very difficult to do. We have trimmed our budget as far as we could in those three years and given back to the city as much as we could. We have efficiency and effectiveness task forces in place, looking at every aspect of the police department.

“This year,” Castor continues, “I don’t know that we are going to be able to go without cutting officer positions. We won’t cut any jobs; it will be through attrition, but I think the reality is that we have gotten to the point where the city has cut everything that it can and that doing more with less, we are at about the end of the road on that one.”

Tampa, according to Castor, has sustained one of the highest officer/citizen ratios in the state with three officers for every 1,000 citizens. The national average is two for every 1,000.

• • •

Tomorrow’s Tampa Police Department will be smaller but more technologically savvy, in part because it must be to survive, but also because of a monster, $60 million grant it received from the Department of Homeland Security. The Tampa PD is administering the grant on behalf of the Urban Area Security Initiative, which locally covers Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Before becoming chief, Castor was in charge of coordinating the initiative.

One application of the money is for a software program called COPLINK, which is a kind of Google search engine for police officers. It is a pass-through system that takes all of the local jurisdictions’ divergent information databases and connects them.

“If I type in ‘Jane Castor,’ I can see that I might have been pulled over in Hillsborough County for a traffic citation, or arrested in Tampa for a misdemeanor. All of that information is brought to the officer’s fingertips in their cars,” Castor explains. “We have solved many crimes with COPLINK, events where a robbery occurs, and one of the suspects will call another one by a nickname, and we enter that into the nickname database, and out pops a suspect. Same thing with tattoos, all of that.

“The officers today have the technology that allows them to work much smarter than we did,” she says.

• • •

When Castor was on the streets, working a beat, she found plenty of frustration with the way the department was administered—just as anyone in an employer/employee relationship does.

One day, Chief Hogue asked his then assistant, “Doesn’t it bother you when people are critical of staff?”

“No, not at all,” then-assistant chief Castor said. “Because when I had five years on the job, I said, ‘Make me chief, I’ll change this place!’”

The biggest aggravations came before she understood the inner workings of the police bureaucracy. “Sometimes how slow the processes move was very frustrating,” she says, “and it still, even as a chief, is frustrating to me. You want to get things done and move on, and it’s just not that easy. A lot of red tape.”

She intends to continue showing up, unannounced, at roll calls and meeting with officers as much as possible on a daily basis to hear their beefs and keep the lines of communications open between them.

“I don’t have any issue with criticism or questioning,” she says. “The best ideas are going to come from the officers out there on the street, so I don’t have any problem with them questioning a process or a procedure or any kind of criticism of the staff. I just want it to be informed. The old saying, ‘Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,’ that’s frustrating to me. I don’t mind criticism, just make it informed criticism.”

• • •

Asking the Tampa Police Chief about her sexual orientation as a lesbian woman is hardly an inviting prospect. But it has to be done, in the same way the media would routinely inquire about the home life of Tampa’s straight female mayor: Are you married? Do you have kids? Dogs? It’s part of the information download when you choose to a public figure.

Fortunately, the muscular Castor, who has essentially been out since college, is extremely at ease with her identity. She and her former partner share the responsibility for raising their two boys, both age 10. The chief says she’s not in a hurry to develop a new personal relationship beyond her sons and her two Labradors.

“I don’t stand up in front of people and preach one thing and then lead my life in another way,” she says. “I lead my life every day as an example for others to follow. I always try to be fair, honest, open with everybody that I deal with.

“I’m not naïve enough to think that there aren’t detractors out there just based on my sexual orientation,” Castor adds. “A common perception of police officers is that they are a close-minded group, and I really see it to be just the opposite. We are called in to run people’s lives every day, and as long as people get along and they have a positive home life and they are not committing crimes and they are not beating each other up, then police officers are very accepting individuals. And within the Tampa Police Department, you are judged on your ability to do the job, regardless if you’re male or female, gay or straight.”

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