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Tuesday, Sep 30, 2014

Remembering Tampa’s zany Jim Fair

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It is tempting to compare Toronto’s goofball mayor, Rob Ford, to one of the more colorful political figures to ever capture headlines here in Tampa.

But the comparison is not completely apt because, although the late Jim Fair certainly made news with his unconventional approach to civic affairs, he was also affable, amusing and even, in his own way, sometimes admirable.

Ford is simply absurd, and the amazing part is there appear to be many voters in Toronto who don’t mind that at all. He’s under investigation by the police and has virtually bragged about his sex life and experimenting with illicit drugs. Yet he’s running for re-election even though there is official talk of “possible criminality.” Ford dismisses any criticism of his self-indulgent ways.

Jim Fair had a finely honed sense of humor (he called his downtown thrift store “The Salvation Navy”) and a huge heart, but he was too far off the beaten path to be considered a mainstream figure in Tampa.

Fair loved publicity, and he also liked to file lawsuits about almost anything that captured his fancy, explaining he had never met a lawsuit he didn’t like. Sometimes judges sentenced him to jail for contempt of court for things he said in court.

The Tampa Tribune was among the many targets of Fair’s lawsuits. So were election officials because, although he frequently ran for public office, he believed the required filing fees were unconstitutional.

Even so, in the 1960s, he was elected Hillsborough County’s supervisor of elections.

His winning campaign that year coincided with a doping scandal involving racehorses and the Kentucky Derby, and after the votes were counted Fair visited The Tribune newsroom and smilingly declared he was ready to take his drug test.

Fair’s lone political victory did not end well. He turned out to have more wit than diligence, and the governor had to remove him for thoroughly bungling the office’s operations.

In the early 1990s, Fair died and the Tribune headline called him a “gadfly.” Friends objected, insisting he had been far more than that. They had a point.

Self-satisfied, belligerent Rob Ford is a stark contrast to the good-natured Fair. The shameless Ford doesn’t seem to worry about the embarrassment he is causing his city. He recently appeared on the late-night television show hosted by Jimmy Kimmell in Los Angeles, cheerfully telling the host: “I’m just a normal, average, hardworking politician.”

That prompted a Toronto newspaper editorial to describe the comment as “one of the funnier lines of the night.” The truth, The Globe & Mail added, is that Ford is a “train wreck.”

“Draw back the curtain, as Torontonians must do this election year, and all we see is a failed politician tainted by a history of lies, boorish behavior and admitted illicit activity,” the editorial continued. “He is a joke, and it’s on us. Does Canada’s largest city really want a mayor invented in Hollywood?”

Jim Fair never was Tampa’s mayor, although he did run once, and rode a bicycle off the Platt Street Bridge as part of his campaign. But there was something innocent about his antics, and in any event the people of Tampa had better sense than to entrust their city to his zany hands. (Tampa residents, in fact, have an enviable record for electing capable mayors)

Any community can tolerate or even celebrate a Jim Fair; no community needs the disgrace of a Rob Ford.

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