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From Florida, a Plea to the Middle to Re-engage

With Washington proving yet again this week it’s immune not only to the spirit of Christmas, but to any other effort at achieving good will, it was refreshing to pick up a book by a politician who counsels respect and compromise.

Pam Iorio was twice elected mayor of Tampa, one of Florida’s major cities, and part of a fast-growing metropolitan area with demographic changes bumping into economic dips and shifts. From 2003 until earlier this year, she led Tampa in efforts to bring more business to its downtown, to renovate troubled neighborhoods and to tackle mass transportation needs.

The 52 year old Iorio is a Democrat but ran and served as a non-partisan, as required by local law. I phoned her after seeing her new book, “STRAIGHTFORWARD: Ways to Live & Lead,” which brought back memories of my interview with her in the spring of 2010 while in Florida to cover issues impacting the races for Congress and governor.

She said she decided she had a message to share after working in politics and public service for almost 3 decades, and seeing what she calls a “real lack, a degradation in leadership” both in politics and business. Iorio told me she recalls “a time when people worked together and reached compromise.”

In Washington and across the country, “We have gotten away from solving problems for the general public good and instead focus now on the accumulation and retention of power with very clear winners and losers.” She said it’s essential that leaders not be “ideologically entrenched,” that they “check their passions at the door” before seeking consensus; “otherwise, someone has to leave the room a loser.” Iorio told me that to find workable solutions, everyone has to walk away with something. She doesn’t believe today’s political leaders, who she says focus mostly on winners vs. losers, realize how much they are hurting the country.

She loved being mayor but today’s sober analysis comes from her own experience in office, in particular the years of work she did with the mayors of Orlando and Lakeland (one a Democrat, one a Republican), and Florida’s business community, to lay the groundwork for a high speed rail system, only to see it vetoed by a newly elected Gov. Rick Scott, whom Iorio describes as making the decision “purely on ideological reasoning.” Scott declined to accept a $ 3.2 Billion transportation grant from the federal government. According to Iorio, “that was the end of it, no attempt to compromise, no consensus building and no politics of respect…. No respecting each other’s point of view.”

Why has this happened? “Because we have a ‘given up’ middle ground. The huge group of people in the middle in the United States have given up on politics.” She says she saw this a lot as mayor and sees it now as she travels and often speaks about leadership. “The people in the middle aren’t politically active, they don’t vote in primaries or caucuses,” she said, which explains the Tea Party victories of last year, and to an extent, the Occupy Wall Street movement.

As for Washington, “our current leaders are forgetting they’re supposed to be problem solvers for the nation.” What can be done about all this? Iorio says the “middle ground people” have to get active again, and become leaders themselves. “Some need to run for office or speak up in other ways…..As long as they remain on the sidelines, we’ll continue to have this leadership crisis…a government that fails us.”

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