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Topher Morrison taps commercial airline pilot Jeff Zampitella to run mayoral campaign

Topher Morrison hired Tampa-based commercial airline pilot and former Hillsborough County Commission candidate Jeff Zampitella to manage his campaign for Tampa Mayor, the small business consultant announced Tuesday.

With less than three months before the election, Zampitella’s hire is a late one. But Zampitella’s broad reach within local political circles could help Morrison’s self-proclaimed underdog campaign gain momentum heading into the March 5 election.

“Jeff Zampitella brings the level of political horsepower to the campaign that we wanted. He has run for office and has assisted in many other local campaigns,” Morrison said. “A friendship and a deep level of mutual respect has developed between us over the last couple of years, through our shared love of the city and our interest in improving transit in Tampa.”

Zampitella moved to Tampa in 2004 and has since been a consistent, outspoken political voice within the community. Zampitella got into politics in 2014 as part of the vocal group of opponents to the now-defunct Tampa Bay Express plan the Florida Department of Transportation’s local office was pushing.

Zampitella, along with other community activists, fought hard against the plan, which would have created a series of highway widening projects throughout the Tampa Bay region as well as a network of controversial toll lanes. The group’s opposition led to FDOT “resetting” the plan and a new one is still in the works.

Following that opposition, Zampitella ran for Hillsborough County Commission in 2016. He lost the election, but performed better than most expected from a first-time candidate.

Zampitella currently serves as president of his condo association and of the Downtown River Arts Neighborhood Association from 2016-2018. He’s also a founding officer of the pedestrian and bicycle advocacy group Walk Bike Tampa.

Zampitella is also an active member of the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee serving as the group’s Chair of Candidate Recruitment and Development Committee from 2016-2018. Under his leadership there, the party put up a Democratic candidate in every 2018 Hillsborough political race, something the campaign says hasn’t happened in more than 25 years.

Zampitella will have a tough campaign to run. Morrison is a first time candidate running against several big names in Tampa politics including former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, philanthropist David Straz who is the namesake for the performing art center, former Hillsborough County Commissioner and former mayoral candidate Ed Turanchik and City Council members Harry Cohen and Mike Suarez.

But Morrison has inserted himself into the race competitively. He lags behind most of the big names in campaign cash, but has managed to bring in more in direct campaign contributions than Suarez and Straz. Straz’s campaign is buoyed by $1.5 million of the retired businessman’s own funds.

Morrison has distanced himself from traditional politics by proposing outside the box strategies, which has earned him both praise and some raised eyebrows.

His most obscure plan includes using aerial gondolas in downtown Tampa as a transit solution. While some mock the idea, it’s not the first time politicians have floated the idea.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman proposed gondolas in an unsuccessful federal grant application seeking innovative ideas to boost city success and former Clearwater City Council member Doreen Caudell pitched the idea several times.

Former Hillsborough County Film Commission head Dale Gordon previously managed Morrison’s campaign.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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