TBO.com, The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times - breaking news and weather
Sunday, Jul 13, 2014

Young, tech-savvy residents changing political landscape

Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 12:45 AM

Local politicians of all stripes agree on one thing: The county's economic future depends on luring greater numbers of young, tech-savvy workers to the sunny shores of Tampa Bay.

Their entrepreneurial drive and innovative spirit, the thinking goes, hold more promise for a solid economic foundation than Florida's traditional economic engine — real estate development.

But the campaign may carry a political price for a Republican Party already struggling to stay relevant in the wake of last week's presidential election.

That's because the people Tampa's leaders covet in high-tech enclaves such as Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C., belong to the same coalition of racial minorities, immigrants and women who have twice landed Barack Obama in the White House.

Each naturalized Indian doctor or U.S.-born Hispanic computer programmer who settles into a Channelside condo is potentially one less voter in the county's Republican column and one more supporter of mass-transit, gay marriage and immigration reform — all core Democratic issues.

Unless the profile of these sought-after workers changes, they stand to widen the already-growing gap between older, whiter voters — baby boomers and their predecessors — and the young, multiracial, multi-ethnic society taking root here and across the country.

Tampa's universities, as well as its refugee population, continue to expand cultural diversity by adding more residents born abroad, primarily in Latin America and Asia.

Last year alone, 7,500 immigrants in the Tampa area became U.S. citizens, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

In the case of immigrants, "You're talking about people who are trying to be upwardly mobile and get their way into the middle class," said Kevin Thurman, a 32-year-old Democratic political consultant.

"Exit polls showed the hungrier people think Barack Obama is more likely to build an economy that will do that. I think the trust issue is huge."

That's not to say Republicans can't enlist those hoped-for newcomers, nor that once they get here, they will consistently vote Democratic.

Many are likely to be entrepreneurs worried about taxes, regulations and other issues in the Republicans' wheelhouse. That should be another reminder that Republicans' reliance on social-wedge issues and strict anti-tax philosophies need to change, some observers say.

"For the young professionals we're trying to attract here, the tenor of that last campaign isn't going to work," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat.

But more than shrill rhetoric divides the young, creative class from the Republican mainstream. On social issues, the chasm is clear-cut. Young people are much more comfortable with gay, lesbian and transgender people and more likely to favor same-sex marriage than older, conservative voters.

They are also strongly on the side of a woman's reproductive rights, a real problem for a Republican Party that lost U.S. Senate seats in Indiana and Missouri after GOP nominees made ill-considered statements about abortion.

"They are very liberal, the young people, on gay rights, gay marriage, women's rights and marijuana laws," said Florida political scientist and author Lance deHaven-Smith. "These attitudes are a widespread view among the young people. It's not a majority; it's like 80 percent."

The young professionals also tend to gravitate toward urban areas, already Democratic strongholds. They want to be closer to cultural amenities, eclectic restaurants and night spots. They care about quality of life issues — parks, bike paths, river walks and mass transit — and are not as tax averse as most Republican candidates.

"I think the disparity is not between young voters versus old voters; it's more urban living versus suburban living," said Ken Cowart, a 38-year-old architect who lives in Tampa. "The suburbs that were built out and developed in the '80s, '90s and early 2000s are primarily Republican. Now there is an increased desire for urban life that is more of a Democratic belief."

An example of how an influx of diverse young people could tilt a hotly contested local issue is mass transit. Two years ago, voters shot down a referendum on a one-cent sales tax increase for transportation projects, including light rail. Tea party members took the lead in opposing the tax, calling the light rail component a costly boondoggle.

Though the transit tax failed 58-42 percent, support was strong in central Tampa, especially along the proposed rail corridor from downtown Tampa to the University of South Florida. Thurman, the Democratic consultant, said the massive turnout of young voters for Obama could also be mined for another transit referendum.

"I think (the election) shows there's a coalition of people who support rail transportation," he said.

County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a Republican, campaigned actively for the transit tax, saying rail and road improvements the tax would finance were vital to attracting high-tech and bio-tech industries.

Sharpe said his party needs to modernize by moving away from rigid ideological positions on issues such as immigration and taxation, and toward a pragmatic approach that will attract young people generally and the creative class specifically.

"If you look at job start-ups that are created across the country, they have a very diverse population, many of them foreign students," Sharpe said. "They're either running the companies or working at them. It would be good for the country to have a policy that encouraged them to stay here, become citizens and create jobs."

Election results from Raleigh, Austin and other communities with high-tech jobs give some insight into the Tampa area's political future, should Republicans fail to rethink some of their more conservative positions.

In Raleigh, Obama won 55 percent of the vote Tuesday, and in Austin, he won 60 percent. Both are in states that overall went for Romney.

San Jose, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley, voted 70 percent for Obama.

He also captured 52 percent of Hillsborough County's vote. That may not portend continued Democratic success, though, especially in local and legislative elections. Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by 64,000, but Democrats tend not to turn out for off-year elections.

"Republicans vote all the time," deHaven-Smith said. "You give them an election, they'll show up.

One area that illustrates the impact of young, ethnically diverse professionals on voting patterns is New Tampa. The community's spacious homes and sculpted landscapes seem to typify Republican suburbia. Yet New Tampa, the city's most racially and ethnically diverse area, came out strong for Obama.

Still, Democratic candidates in local and legislative contests can't count on New Tampa. Because many of the residents are transplants from other states or countries, they tend to ignore local and state elections.

That's not necessarily the case for the young people drawn to the city lights. They tend to be more engaged in civic life — a factor that could make them spoilers in city, county and state elections, Buckhorn said.

Thurman and Cowart, the architect, are examples of young professionals who moved to Tampa from other states and got involved locally.

They led a grass-roots coalition of young professionals who persuaded the Hillsborough County Commission, which has a Republican majority, to refrain from demolishing the Friendship Trail Bridge.

They are now working with the county on a plan to restore or replace the bridge with a linear park across Tampa Bay.

"I live in Tampa, and what my local leaders do affects me greatly," Cowart said.

msalinero@tampatrib.com (813) 259-8303