by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
May 18, 2010
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TAMPA, Fla., May 13, 2010 -- The waiting was not quite agony.
City leaders, business executives and prominent Florida Republicans gathered in the boardroom of Tampa & Co., its convention and visitors bureau, in the downtown landmark SunTrust building Wednesday to learn from GOP national chairman Michael Steele whether the city had been chosen over Phoenix and Salt Lake City to host the next Republican National Convention, which starts Aug. 27, 2012.
Was it really a total secret?
"I had a pretty good idea," Tampa site committee chairman Al Austin told the American Reporter somewhat sheepishly after the event.
That wasn't necessarily true of the press, who turned out in large numbers and pretty much all in the dark. Several chattered among themselves about a sudden burst of cheers overheard by an AP reporter in Phoenix as the moment for Steele's announcement approached.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, now in her third term, former one-term Gov. Bob Martinez, current Hillsborough County Commission chair Ken Hagen, a senior vice-president of RegionsBank and other local dignitaries crowded the boardroom.
Notably absent was Gov. Charlie Crist, chairman of the host committee. The greyhound-sleek, white-haired governor, just months ago touted for the Republican vice-presidential nomination, was busy Wednesday afternoon registering to vote as an independent in nearby St. Petersburg, where he lives.
Steele had just weathered a scandal after the national party funded a $1,500 evening at Voyeur, a lesbian bondage club in gay West Hollywood, Calif. He reminded the leaders that they'd have to raise $40,000,000 for security and other costs of the convention. Austin said several of the dignitaries present would donate more than a million dollars each to make that happen.
The convention is expected to bring $175,000,000 in spending and some 3,000 jobs to the Tampa Bay area. which has been hit as hard by the Great Recession as any large community in America. Mayor Iorio said the selection "puts us on the map," but Tampa's already hosted the Stanley Cup finals, four Super Bowls and is on the short list to host the 2022 World Cup.
Yet there may have been a strong political upside the dignitaries declined to talk about Wednesday - on the record, anyway. With former Gov. Jeb Bush looking unlikely to compete, there's no strong Republican hopeful based in Florida for either top spot. That gives the other players the prospect of a level playing field, presuming they can get past the sidelines - the GOP primaries.
Salt Lake City was the one-time home for former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, who is revered there because he managed to get the scandal-plagued 2004 Olympic Games out of trouble. Phoenix, with its new anti-immigration laws certain to spark huge demonstrations if the convention came, is also home to 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, who could reprise that role or opt to become a kingmaker in 2012.
Nonetheless, Tampa - and Florida - was an iffy choice for the national party. The state went for President Obama in 2008, and the Republican Party of Florida has enough local problems to choke an elephant.
First there was the grand jury investigation of GOP Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom, who was forced to resign after he won funds from the legislature for a costly hangar to be owned by a community college in his district that - unknown to the legislature - would be rented out to shelter planes owned by a contributor. On the day the bill passed, Sansom got a job at the college that would pay him a huge salary for part-time work.
Sansom was replaced as Speaker of the Florida House by Marco Rubio of Miami, an announced U.S. Senate candidate running against Gov. Crist. When a scandal arose over lavish credit-card spending by Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer, the spending tainted several top Republican elected officials, including Rubio, and Greer was forced to resign.
Meanwhile, Crist, a moderate, came under fire from conservatives and Tea Party activists after he embraced the White House stimulus plan and publicly hugged President Barack Obama, who'd come to Tampa to announce it. Rubio's campaign hit Crist with a powerful commercial blitz, and within a few months, the embrace cost Crist a huge lead in the polls.
After U.S. Senator Mel Martinez resigned in 2008 to spend more time with his family, the governor appointed close friend and longtime chief of staff George LeMieux to hold down the Senate seat until Crist could get elected to it. But when Crist became an independent, Sen. LeMieux declined to endorse him and will presumably back Rubio. Crist is again the favorite, now in a three-way race with Rubio and the likely Democratic nominee, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, or billionaire Jeff Greene.
And the state's attorney general, Bill McCollum, the leading Republican candidate for governor, is in hot water after it was revealed he had paid a psychologist allied with the conservative Family Research Council about $120,000 to testify for the state in legislative hearings against a law that would permit adoption by gay couples.
The psychologist did as asked, but McCollum was embarrassed when reporters for New Times found out the psychologist had hired a well-endowed $75-a-day male escort from RentBoy.com for a two-week trip to London and Madrid and took photos of them getting off the flight back home to Miami.
Al Austin argues with gusto that Tampa's greatest appeal is that it sits on one of the most beautiful bays in the world. A dawn or sunset ride across the arcing Sunshine Skyway to St. Petersburg is an unforgettable experience. The sugar-white beaches of the Gulf Coast are renowned and regularly win honors as the best in the world. Now, though, there's the danger of damage from the Gulf oil slick, much of which is believed to be in a huge glob underwater. Tar balls are as yet unseen here on Florida beaches, but winds and the Loop Current that pushes northern Gulf waters towards Miami can carry them ashore.
The Great Recession has taken a terrible toll here and only this month has the pace of foreclosures and the slide in home prices begun to reverse. Since it was battered four years ago, the area has largely escaped hurricane damage, but there's no telling what may happen in the last week of August 2012, even without hurricanes.
Austin told The American Reporter he believed the convention would help bring the state party together through the jobs it would create and the - presumably lavish, credit-card - spending it would bring to town.
"I think it will unify the party," he said.