The Washington Post

Tampa locals, on the outside looking elsewhere

It might be possible to make it through the entire Tampa convention without seeing an actual Tampan. Office workers have fled the downtown as if from a plague. The Republican conventioneers come and go on shuttle buses. Geography is defined corporately, as in “Are you going to the Bloomberg party?”

The stormy weather drove people inside for the first half of the week, and it’s been hot and sticky since. It’s likely that many visitors have encountered none of Florida’s natural beauty, save perhaps for the “live mermaids” swimming in a big tank at the aquarium and sucking on oxygen hoses.

Tampa residents have a reciprocal relationship to the convention: They’re holing up and waiting for the political storm to pass. Like Tim Ferreira, 43, and Jason Burby, 32, two engineers holding a business meeting Thursday morning at Datz Deli, a popular hangout for locals in the South Tampa neighborhood.

Both are Republicans, but not table-pounding ideologues. Ferreira prefers Republican pro-business policies. Burby doesn’t like the Obama plan to raise taxes on the rich: “If you punish the people who make $20 million a year, who’s going to build their boats, who’s going to build their planes, who’s going to design their buildings?”

Neither has been watching the show on TV, much less attending any Republican events. They work for a living. The big speeches are after 10 p.m. — late for guys who get up early. And they’re like a lot of voters: They’re not in play. They’ll vote Republican, and there’s no need to close the sale.

Some people’s minds are made up and some people’s minds are blank, at least politically. Most people don’t read Politico. Consider Felicia Pannell, 34, getting her iced latte at a Starbucks on the west side of Tampa on Thursday morning. She’s not just undecided as a voter, but completely unfocused on the campaign: “I’m not educated enough at this point to make a decision,” she said.

But she’s educated enough to be an engineer who worked the previous night until 3:30 a.m. on a project at work.

“Everybody that watches this intently assumes everybody else is, and it may come as a shock to — to people whose livelihood is based on the political process, they don’t,” Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, said at a breakfast gathering Thursday sponsored by The Washington Post and Bloomberg News.

There’s something else at work, a paradox in the center of Campaign 2012: It’s a close race but not a particularly exciting or dynamic one. The polls change little from week to week.

The campaign of 2008 was generally viewed as one of the most dramatic in American history, but this one feels more like 2004, close but not captivating. It’s a referendum campaign, an up-or-down on President Obama the way 2004 was a referendum on George W. Bush. The candidates may sense this, for they are focusing a lot of attention on their political bases, trying to make sure their supporters show up at the polls in November.

Obama will need to retarget some of his supporters here who seem to be wavering, like Riley Walker, having breakfast with his girlfriend, Christal Ceithamer, at Pinky’s, a mom-and-pop breakfast joint in South Tampa. Both are 23. Walker voted for Obama in 2008; Ceithamer didn’t vote and doubts she will this time, saying she doesn’t follow politics.

“I don’t want to vote for Obama. But I’m also not sure Mitt’s the guy either,” Walker said. Why is he disillusioned with the president? “Nothing really changed. A lot of promises were made and not much happened.”

This is voter-rich territory. That’s a major reason the Republicans picked Tampa for their convention. Obama would very much like to win Florida, and Mitt Romney must win it to have any realistic chance to get to 270 electoral votes. The swingingest section of the state is the Interstate 4 corridor, anchored by the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolis that keeps trying to rebrand itself as “Tampa Bay.”

Tampa is a racially, ethnically, socioeconomically diverse city that’s different from much of America in its newness, the way so much of it has been built in the last 40 years, with a large number of people who showed up in the last decade, or the last 12 months, or last week.

Just beyond the downtown core to the north are low-income neighborhoods, some black, some Hispanic. Nearby Ybor City is a tourist hotspot at night; only in the last couple of decades has it been redeveloped after decades of decline with the closing of the cigar factories. To the south of downtown are some wealthy areas, such as Davis Island. This is a military town, with MacDill Air Force Base on the peninsula jutting into the heart of the bay. Young people cram the bars and restaurants of South Tampa, where you’ll also find the legendary Bern’s Steak House, which by reputation has the largest wine cellar in the solar system.

Go far north in Hillsborough County and you hit the newly built suburbs loaded with swing voters, and if you head southeast, to 4 o’clock on the dial that is the bay, you will find Sun City Center, a retiree farm.

Ten miles north of the convention, at the University Mall on Fowler Avenue, two DJs who normally work clubs in the downtown area groused about the Republicans. Some of their usual venues are inside the security perimeter.

“It cost us money. Probably cost me a couple of hundred bucks,” said one, who gave his name only as Will. He’s definitely not a GOP voter: “They’re destroying the middle class. It’s hooray for me, hooray for rich people and screw the poor people.”

Ben Paschal, 52, a forklift operator, said he voted for Obama four years ago but this fall won’t vote for either Obama or Romney. He’s fed up with the state of American politics — the divisiveness in Washington that makes it hard to get anything accomplished.

“Until the system gets fixed, I think of people are going to be on the outside looking in,” Paschal said.

One disaffected Obama voter of four years ago is Sandy Garcia, 50, a sales rep who stopped for lunch this week at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop. It’s a Cuban joint, a local landmark with thousands of snapshots of local residents and civic leaders on the walls. West Tampa is a Democratic stronghold, traditionally, full of longtime Tampa residents whose parents and grandparents came over from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Spain or Italy to work in the cigar factories.

“I voted for Obama, and I will not vote for him again,” Garcia said. Four years ago, she said, “I bought into the excitement about Obama.”

She’s been watching the speeches on TV, and said she loved Ann Romney on Tuesday night.

“I didn’t know anything about her, good or bad. She cleared up a lot of worries I had,” she said.

A block away, at another Cuban restaurant, El Gallo de Oro, two friends sat on the outdoor patio and bemoaned the condition of the country.

Congress? “I think they should get rid of all of them,” said Jorge Miranda, 80, a retired post office worker, using slightly more colorful language.

“You’re reading my mind,” said his friend Jorge Ramos, 85.

Both Miranda and Ramos are Democrats, and both voted in 2008 for Obama. This time? Both are undecided.

“Maybe Romney. I’m not sure,” Miranda said. “Things are not going too good.”

Mark Zenku, 43, has his mind made up. He is a native of Macedonia who has been a U.S. citizen for a dozen years, and Thursday morning he was headed to his job as a server at an Olive Garden. He’s paying not attention whatsoever to the Republicans. He’s Obama all the way. Obama, he said, inherited a terrible economy and it’ll take a while to fix.

“The way I see it, even if Jesus was president, he wasn’t going to be able to fix it — that’s how bad it was,” Zenku said.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."


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