I can think of few places better to hold a political convention than Tampa. On that score the Republicans have won this year’s battle, as the Democrats have their convention in an ultra-boring conservative banking center like Charlotte, while the GOP has picked the place which is perhaps one of the greatest microcosms of American society past and present.
The Tampa Bay area is the largest media market in the nation’s largest swing state. The city of Tampa itself is the cultural capital of the state and along with Jacksonville and Orlando the most economically relevant cities to the state as a whole. Yet, Tampa still has an identity crisis less glamorous than Orlando or Miami, less corporate than Jacksonville, less connected to the world than Fort Lauderdale and in my opinion less livable than St Petersburg and Clearwater just across the bay. But Tampa has a little of everything and no other city in Florida can claim that.
Tampa’s identity should be enhanced with the obsessive media focus this week. But Tampa’s history is troubled and their are reminders everywhere of that. Take one of the largest attractions in town, the award winning Lowry Park Zoo. The Zoo was named for General Sumter Lowry whose philanthropy helped Tampa grow into a major city during the 1950s, but whose views on segregation were the most extreme of the era. Lowry ran for Governor in 1956 exclusively on the race issue vowing never to accept black children into white schools and pledging to emulate Virginia’s “massive resistance” effort. Thankfully, Lowry was defeated in the Democratic Primary by Governor Leroy Collins the son of a Tallahassee grocer and one of the greatest Floridians ever.
Americans are seemingly obsessed with stories about the mafia. One of the most powerful mob figures of the second half of the twentieth century was born, bred and based in Tampa: Santo Trafficante Jr. In fact, the mafia based out of Tampa was arguably the strongest in the country during the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time, Hillsborough County was developing a reputation for racial intolerance and that is why it is the only urban county that still today subject to the voting rights act. But at the same time union activity in Tampa was greater and stronger than the rest of the state and in 1968 it provided critical leadership during the statewide teacher’s strike.
We hear a great deal about strip clubs in the media coverage of Tampa. For some reason, northern journalists have a fascination with this seedy side of Tampa, but have failed to note that Hillsborough County probably has more conservative Christian voters and elected officials than any other place in the state of Florida. For as much as liberals and south Floridians who don’t get out much to the rest of state assume the most right-wing legislators come from Pensacola or parts north of Gainesville, the names Johnny Byrd, Rachel Burgin, Rhonda Storms and Jim Norman all remind us about the political bent of the county outside Tampa proper.Much of the Christian conservatism
Tampa also has one of the greatest mixes of people from different national origins in the country. In a sense it is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country, mixing different ethnicities, as well as native southerners and lots of Midwesterners into one great melting pot. The Tampa Bay area has also produced a disproportionate number of professional baseball, soccer and football players compared to similar sized metro areas. As someone who work in soccer, it’s well known among European scouts that if you want to find good young American talent, the Tampa Bay area has to be one of your first stops.
This one of a kind place will be the focus of the national and international news for the next three days. Let’s hope those watching get to know the real Tampa and what a remarkably complex and interesting place it is.