Campaign Crawlers

Conventional Wisdom

Tampa becomes a living cliché, as it prepares -- with dread -- for what it asked for.

By 6.1.12

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TAMPA -- Clichés are hackneyed and well-worn phrases we've heard too often. But that doesn't mean they don't contain some wisdom. The operative one for Tampa this summer is, "Be careful what you ask for -- you may get it."

Tampa got it all right. But as the city ties itself in knots trying to prepare for the Republican National Convention here in late August, many locals are wondering if it's too late to pass this hairball off to some other unsuspecting city. The whole business reminds me of Mark Twain's take on being tarred and feathered: "Except for the honor, I'd as soon skip it."

But Tampa rushed in, where angels had enough sense not to tread. So skipping it is no longer an option. In 2009 and 2010, Tampa city fathers and mothers duked it out with Phoenix and Salt Lake City for the honor of hosting the convention. After August 30, when 5,000 delegates and alternates, 15,000 journalists, and perhaps as many as 30,000 hell-raising demonstrators have departed what's left of the city, it may not be altogether clear who "won" this competition. (When this contest was going on, I was pulling for Tampa to take the silver.)

Boosters, the political class, and those in a position to turn a few bob from the festivities are always trying to get big events for their cities. The economic impact and the "exposure" make these circuses beneficial for all, they croon. These claims are highly suspect. I'd be hard pressed to put my finger on any way my life is better because Tampa has hosted several Super Bowls.

And putting on a national political convention, Tampa's political and law enforcement officials are learning to their sorrow, is a lot more complicated, dangerous, and a damn sight more expensive than putting on yet another Super Bowl. The complications keep multiplying, like clowns popping out of the little car at the circus. And the cost of the affair is beyond operatic.

Downtown Tampa will essentially be in lock-down for the melancholy four days. While the party that purports to represent the American bourgeoisie makes its case for how it will put the country back in business, downtown bourgeois will have a difficult time conducting any business at all. Auto-sclerosis alone, caused by cars, cabs, buses (oh my lord, the buses), and street cars schlepping thousands of conventioneers, journalists, cops, and demonstrators around would be enough to make normal business extremely difficult. Add roving bands of demonstrators and the chaos, fear, filth, and noise they bring with them, and downtown Tampa, other than hotels and restaurants, becomes a free enterprise-free zone for the duration of the free enterprise party's stay.

The biggest convention wildcard, and the biggest expense by far, will be attempting to control and pick up after thousand of vandals that we insist on calling by the cuddlier name of demonstrators. Estimates of how many demonstrators will invade Tampa start at about 10,000. But some predict as many as 30,000 lawless resolutes will show up to raise hell, break stuff, intimidate conventioneers, disrupt, and generally trash the place and the event. Tampa has set up specials areas and decreed rules for demonstrators. But hard-core demonstrators have no respect for rules and will do as they damn well please.

The federals will spend $50 million in tax money for security for the convention. Much of the $55 million the local host committee has promised to raise (whether they will be able to meet this goal in this economy is an open question) will be spent on security. Every fourth person in downtown Tampa in late August will be a cop of some sort or a demonstrator. It's a melancholy measure of how scratchy our politics, and more importantly our culture, has become when the city hosting the national convention of one of our major political parties has to spend more than a half million dollars on 1,400 gas masks. Tampa taxpayers are justified in wondering how much of the tab for all this destructive mayhem they will be obliged to pick up. 

One of my hopes for convention days is that our local thieves, villains, and petty crooks do not have a field day plying their own dark trades once they realize how totally tied up the local cops are keeping junior bankers separated from anarchists.

Perhaps what is most remarkable is that all this expense, anxiety, and heartache must be endured merely to accommodate four days of orchestrated political speeches so boring that half the delegates won't show up for them, and that the television networks will largely ignore (unless the candidate or some party official says something that can be turned into a negative story). The only hope of any real news coming out of the convention is if Mitt Romney holds off announcing his VP pick until then.

One of the booster's dreams is that the thousands of journalists in town that week and with little political to write about will write glowing stories of how swell Tampa is, leading those not already privileged to be here to conclude what a great place Tampa would be to live or to operate a business. This demonstrates the boosters' inclination to go with hope over expectation.

I was born in and have lived a significant part of my life in Tampa, and so am familiar with its many charms. But there are snakes in this garden as well. And national journalists, already cranky at being obliged to attend for four days to conservative Republicans that they don't like, are just as apt to write pieces even snarkier than this column as they are to praise Tampa.

This has already started. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart will broadcast from Tampa during the convention. In announcing this the show's producer told the local daily, "We look forward to enjoying the beaches and the exciting nightlife. Plus we assume this counts as a visit to our grandparents." Very droll. Florida's age demographics are not as different from those of the rest of the country as they once were. But Stewart's job is to be funny, not right.

Another target of opportunity for journalists wishing they were elsewhere and looking to get even is Tampa's brutal August weather. Even if there is no hurricane in residence or bearing down on the city -- August is mid-hurricane season hereabouts -- moving about in Tampa during the day in August requires a tolerance for temperatures in the mid-nineties. Walking outside at night is like dog-paddling through warm onion soup. Conventioneers let out on the town at 11 p.m. should not be surprised at temperatures still at 85 with saturation humidity. (Miami resident Dave Barry once suggested the legend on Florida license plates be changed from "The Sunshine State" to "It's NOT a dry heat.")

OK, perhaps I'm just a worrier. Perhaps things will be relatively calm during the convention and Mitt Romney and whoever he chooses to run with him will be given a good send-off into the general election campaign (this assumes Mitt has a coherent message by then). Perhaps Tampa will enjoy many of the benefits boosters promised as a result of landing this pearl beyond price.

But let's not rule out the possibility that the folks in my home town will, after the fact, be envying the care-free days being enjoyed by the good burghers of Phoenix and Salt Lake City while we're sweeping up glass and calculating how much this political rodeo and masa-cree is going to cost us. And also wondering who on earth brought this thing down on us, and what were they thinking.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.