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The Top 3 Contenders To Replace John Dingfelder On The Tampa City Council Are All Women

Tampa currently has the first all-male City Council since a woman was first elected in 1971, but that is likely to change this week.

The Tampa City Council Thursday will select a woman to replace John Dingfelder, according to sources close to the matter.

The City Council is currently composed of all men. It’s the first time Tampa has elected an all-male City Council since Catherine Barja was voted in as the first woman on the City Council in 1971.

Florida Politics has learned that three of the 25 applicants for the vacant District 3 seat have emerged as front-runners to serve on the Council for the next 13 months. All three are women. Meredith Freeman, Amanda Lynn Hurtak and Julie Jenkins currently lead the field, sources say.

Florida Politics, after learning of the front-runners, independently reached out to other political insiders in the city for a response to the list.

Hurtak and Jenkins are the most well known throughout the city.

Jenkins is no stranger to local politics. She ran for a Florida House seat against Rep. Jackie Toledo in 2020 and ran for Tampa City Council in 2015 and 2011. She lost those races. One GOP political consultant said someone who has run so many times and lost shouldn’t be appointed to a city role. But others have praised her philanthropic work and commitment to the community. Jenkins is an active member of the local Democratic Party and League of Women Voters. She’s also a member of the Disability Caucus of Hillsborough County. 

Hurtak, meanwhile, has spent a lot of time in Tampa city government. She was on the Charter Review Commission and serves on the variance review board. She’s also a League of Women Voters member and served on the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association, where she has been land use chair, president and is currently vice president.

Freeman is the least publicly known of all the candidates, but is considered Mayor Jane Castor’s top choice. Freeman is a real estate lawyer with Shutts and Bowen. She also chairs the board of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. While she might not be the most publicly known of the front-runners, Freeman is a much talked about and revered lawyer in Tampa’s legal community.

“They need a female touch on that Council,” political consultant Anthony Pedicini said. “Women in politics should be promoted.”

Mike Suarez served on the City Council for eight years. Before being elected, he was an applicant the last time there was a similar selection process. Coincidentally, that process was also to replace Dingfelder — when he ran for the Hillsborough County Commission. In 2010, the City Council selected Yvonne Capin to serve the last year of his term after 17 rounds of voting narrowed down 27 applicants. 

Suarez said regardless of who might be leading the field, anything could happen when the actual voting starts. He said Council members will face a tough choice. The City Council has been embroiled in controversy following Dingfelder’s resignation and sexual harassment allegations against Council member Orlando Gudes.

The controversy has clouded a City Council faced with a number of major decisions for the city’s future. The PURE project to reuse waste water still needs approvals. The city is embarking on its most ambitious project yet in the $108 million Hanna Avenue City Center project. City officials are still courting the Tampa Bay Rays for an Ybor home, and budget season is right around the corner.

“When you’re talking about a year out from a new Council being seated, the budget is the most important thing,” Suarez said. “We’re going to start looking at numbers next month. It’s very hard to get a grasp in a quick five or six weeks worth of working.”

Erin Lambert Wiley, a local political consultant, also said that will be a significant challenge in the selection process. Whoever is selected will have to be re-elected next year to continue serving, as the term expires May 2023. 

“They’d have to be able to go from day one. There’s no time for learning on the job,” she said. “They’d have to understand the inner workings of the city.”

Wiley said she’s glad to see the top three candidates are women for the all-male Council and thinks any of the women would make good Council members.

“Whether it’s for public education, the environment or a nonprofit, Julie (Jenkins) shows up more consistently than just about anyone I know. She has some great relationships with the current Council too,” Wiley said. “There’s also Lynn Hurtak — smart, capable and familiar with the city. I expect that Lynn’s connections with neighborhood associations and her background serving on city boards should give her a little boost with some of the Council members.

“And of course, there is a ton of talk about Meredith Freeman, a skilled attorney who also chairs the Crisis Center Board. What I’m also hearing about Meredith is that she’s very well connected both within City Hall and the community. I expect those relationships will help her to work effectively with the current Council.”

Wiley also said there’s been talk of selecting a Black woman to serve on the City Council. Many of the applicants are Black women, including former Hillsborough School Board Member Tamara Shamburger and community activist Connie Burton.

Local activists have launched a social media campaign to get Burton appointed to the Council and some have said she could be a wild card candidate once voting begins.

Send an email to [email protected] and let them know that you want them to appoint Connie Burton to the vacant District 3 seat. #ConnnieForCouncil #ConnieBurton pic.twitter.com/sqk55gmrLW

— James Michael Shaw, Jr. (@JamesShawJr) March 24, 2022

“In the wake of someone so entrenched that they sat on the City Council for twenty years, any good applicant needs to bring a fresh on-the-ground perspective that is sorely lacking on the Council right now,” said Samuel Ronen, an activist and consultant. “I can’t imagine that anyone brings that perspective more than Ms. Connie Burton, the loudest voice for real change in Tampa.”

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