Win or lose he’ll always be “the mayor”
By Chris Ingram
(Author’s note: the following feature article is based on a series of interviews I had with Dick Greco over the last few months. Greco was informed our talks would be for publication and I also disclosed to him before we began that I had made a financial contribution to Bob Buckhorn, one of his opponents. Greco is expected to announce his candidacy for Tampa mayor later today. This column was originally posted Nov. 29, 2010).
Dick Greco lumbers out of his car for breakfast at Pach’s Place just off Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa, and within seconds he’s politicking in the parking lot. For Greco, politicking means talking to people and making them feel good about themselves. He asks people about their family, and he likes to talk about the old days. Greco is also known to call the ladies “honey” and even refer to men as “baby,” as in, “How you doin’, baby?” And of course there is the coy wink when asked about the likelihood he’s going to run for mayor – a wink that gets less coy and more likely with each passing day.
Dressed in a tan suit that more image-conscious politicians would avoid, Greco, 77, can get away with it just like your grandfather could. He’s the elder statesman of Tampa politics having served his first term as mayor of Tampa in 1967 when he was 34 years old. Greco resigned in 1974 mid-way through his second term, only to return for a third term in 1995. He was re-elected to a fourth term, which ended in 2003 when he was 70. He now wants another. Not for any apparent reason like a job un-finished, but more than likely because Greco likes being mayor.
In the current environment, “career politician” is a smear most candidates try to avoid, preferring euphemisms like “faithful public servant.” Not Greco. He’s old school and unashamed of his years of service.
Greco takes his seat inside the restaurant which appears dingy but where you know you’ll get a tasty, if not unhealthy meal. He doesn’t have a regular table, but he’s a regular. He tucks his napkin over his tie, and the waitress comes to take his order. Greco makes small talk with her and she’s all smiles. If he’s not being sincere, he ought to get an Academy Award because he’s believable. It has been said Bill Clinton is a masterful “retail” politician – one who makes you feel like the most important person in the room when he’s talking to you. Greco is even better. He makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the world. Not to mention he’s engaging, and tells a great story. Sometimes the stories aren’t fit for mixed company — a little crude, but never vulgar or offensive, and they’re usually humorous.
Before he completes his order, the waitress finishes his sentence, knowing that he wants an omelet with cheese and a bowl of fruit. No toast, grits, or biscuits. He acts a little surprised that she knows what he wants as if to suggest with humility that he’s a nobody.
An elderly gentleman at the next table says hello and says, “Mayor, you look good. Been working out?”
“Walking a little bit,” he says a little bluntly, perhaps more because he knows he needs to be exercising more than he does rather than because he’s being rude with his short answer.
Greco the political philosopher and planner
Greco begins a discussion about the current state of politics by saying, “It’s easy to determine what people want to hear [from politicians]. Everybody just does some research.
“Our representatives are the essence of what we are. It’s not a quality environment today. We’re seeing a lack of interest and low [voter] turn-out when our country is going through things that should dictate we pay more attention.”
Greco’s easy-going style makes talking with him more like having a conversation with a trusted uncle as opposed to getting a scripted pitch from a plastic politician. The serious talk takes a U-turn to the trivial – hot sauce. Specifically, McIlhenney Co’s. Tobasco brand hot sauce, which Greco says he puts on everything.
He’s been accused of not being much of a planner, but at least as far as his hot sauce is concerned, Greco doesn’t take any chances. After hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Greco got worried his beloved hot sauce would be hard to find – figuring the Louisiana pepper fields were flooded with sea water. So in the days after the storm, Greco went to multiple grocery stores and cleared the shelves of Tobasco.
“All totaled I think I ended up with over twenty bottles of the stuff,” he says.
Never mind telling him that most of the McIlhenney Co’s. peppers are now grown in Central America. He wasn’t taking any chances. Besides, details aren’t something with which Greco seems to bother.
Tampa’s Norman Rockwell
The conversation moves back to politics, and Greco has simple, almost elementary views and observations. But at the core of his thoughts are three things: sincerity, truthfulness and a heaping dose of optimism. Such as when he says, “You can’t allow criticism to change your dreams,” or, “We won’t solve anything by being angry.”
When Greco talks he radiates images from a bygone era – the respectful political discourse and thoughtfulness of the 1950s – at least of what many think those days-gone-by were like, even if they really weren’t like that Norman Rockwell image they create in their minds.
Greco talks a lot about the past and not so much about the future, as when he reminisces about his four terms. “Nothing in my life that I have ever done was personally as satisfying than being mayor of Tampa,” he reflects.
In a rare moment of criticism about one of his opponents, Greco laments with an odd contempt that one of them “is always talking about the future.”
“Somebody should ask him if the future is so important, why do they put three rear-facing mirrors in cars?” he asks, not really wanting to hear an answer.
Greco has been accused of being senile – probably for making somewhat nonsensical comments like that one, but while he may not be on his “A” game, Dick Greco isn’t senile. He’s just simple and honest. And he’s banking on that simplicity and honesty separating him from the rest of the field of politicians running for Tampa Mayor next year.
Experiences as mayor
Greco talks about his days as mayor with pride. He particularly likes talking about how he would drive around at night with a police radio and show up at dispatched calls. Burglaries, child abuse cases, rapes, murders, drug wars – he’s responded to them all. As a result of going on those calls, he says, “I’ve talked to people who’d never had a hot bath and saw lots of other things I never would have seen.”
When asked if he ever thought he was getting in the way of the police and their investigations, he answers like a politician. Evasively, and without addressing the issue. “They appreciated it. Sitting in the office you wouldn’t know all these things. You’ve got to get out to know your constituents. When we had race riots here in Tampa, I was out on the street,” he says with self-contentment.
The talk turns to other accomplishments – some significant, while others seemingly trivial. The boasts include bringing curb-side garbage pick-up to Tampa, which used to have backyard pick-up until Greco realized trash cans overloaded with watermelon rinds in the summer months were causing workers’ back problems. Seriously. That’s what he said. And when Greco explains it, it makes all the sense in the world. Other achievements consist of the novel idea of placing water coolers on city maintenance workers’ trucks, shutting down the illegal Balita gambling businesses in West Tampa, and building the downtown trolley.
Looking in the mirror
When the conversation turns to the future, Greco forgets about rear-view mirrors for a moment and says what all smart politicians acknowledge today.
“Today’s big challenge…we’ve got to bring jobs,” he says.
And then he goes back to the rear-view.
“I’ve [brought jobs] over and over. The first big company to come to Tampa – Met Life – we brought them here by being hospitable,” he says. “Hospitable” is a Greco euphemism for “we showed the CEOs a rockin’ good time.” Greco, as is widely known likes to party.
People person or party animal?
Around Tampa, those who know Greco say in his more youthful days he was something of a party animal. Seventy-plus years may have slowed him down a bit, but not much. Greco can still be found at social events where he’s a draw for photographers of Tampa’s upscale society magazines. He makes no denials about his days and nights on Tampa’s party scene. It’s part of being a people person.
“I’m about people. If I’m not around people, I’m not happy,” he says. “Politics is about people. It’s what I love. It’s what I’m good at. It’s what I’ve done. And this is where I was born and where I will die,” he adds, referring to his beloved Tampa.
The question for Greco is, is he still beloved by voters?
USF political science professor Susan McManus says Greco has quite a legacy and tremendous name I.D. despite having been out of office for eight years. “The key question is: do voters want change, or do they want to go back to the old guard? Greco is a superb campaigner and he’s fascinating; and he has a terrific network of loyal supporters. Voters will have a clear choice this time between people with different visions for the city,” McManus says.
Friend and foes
Not all of those voters are enamored with Dick Greco, but finding people who will say something negative about him is not easy.
One local voter who shared his negative views on Greco would only give his first name out of fear Greco might win and somehow seek retribution; although settling a score seems highly un-like Greco.
“Tom” comes from a fifth generation Tampa family. He’s a small businessman who deeply cares about the community and has a strong and unflattering opinion about Greco’s previous four terms as mayor.
“He’s never done anything good for Tampa. He’s a good P.R. man and he likes to party, but he hasn’t done anything creative and has no vision. He’s spent our kids into poverty with all these bonds. And he gave us the trolley, which is a complete joke. There’s no reason for it to exist. Nobody rides it,” Tom says.
Tom goes on about how the cost of the trolley started at $20 million then ended up costing over $60 million. He seems to know his trolley history when he points out problems the city had with insurance and negotiations with CSX, which owned some of the right-of-way the trolley rides on. Tom has equally unflattering things to say about Greco’s involvement in building Raymond James Stadium with taxpayer dollars “for the Glazers” – the family that owns the Bucs and their for-profit business. But for all his fits about Greco’s record, it’s clear Tom’s disdain is all issue-related and not personal.
“I like him as a person. But he’s bored. He likes being in the limelight. He’s a partier and an entertainer. He just likes people coming up to him in a restaurant and saying, ‘Hi Mr. Mayor!’” Tom says, dismissing any other positive attributes Greco brings to the table.
But Greco has lots of adoring fans. People like Margaret Moran, who has lived in Tampa since 1999 – during Greco’s last term. She says she’ll vote for him for a fifth term if he runs again next year.
“He knows everything and everyone. He’s fiscally responsible and knows how to run the city like a business. And he listens,” Moran says. “And there won’t be a learning curve,” she adds with emphasis on Greco’s lack of need to learn on the job.
Other than wanting to create jobs, Greco is short on any specifics he wants to accomplish if elected mayor next year. When asked to name a local rising political star, he couldn’t. Nor could he name a single enemy, instead stating with a straight face, “I don’t have enemies.” When asked what they’ll say about him at his eulogy, Greco answers: “I just hope they’ll say I’m a nice guy.”
When pressed to say something negative about his opponents in the mayor’s race he doesn’t.
“Bob is a nice guy,” he says referring to Bob Buckhorn.
“Rose is a friend,” he says of Rose Ferlita.
“Turancheck is a great guy,” he says of Ed Turancheck.
It’s hard to believe a man who spent four terms as mayor of one of Florida’s largest cities doesn’t have any enemies, but with Greco you can almost believe it. He knows how to treat people.
Win or lose he’ll always be the mayor
Greco gets up from his table at Pach’s and goes to the cash register to pay his bill. The woman running the cash register looks tired as though she works two jobs and has a house full of kids to take care of. She hardly seems like the type of person who closely follows politics.
Greco approaches the register and she flashes him a big smile and says, “Good morning mayor. How are you?”
Chris Ingram is the president and founder of 411 Communications a corporate and political communications firm, and publisher of Irreverent View. Ingram is a frequent pundit on Fox News and CNN, and has written opinion columns for the Washington Times, UPI, and National Review online. He is the Republican political analyst for Bay News 9, the only 24 hour all news channel in Florida’s largest media market. The opinions expressed here are those of author and do not represent the views of Bay News 9. E-mail him at: Chris@IrreverentView.com.
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