CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While acknowledging that the atmosphere surrounding the Democratic National Convention has a friendlier vibe than the one last week at the Republican National Convention, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn defended the fortress-like security plan he helped devise.
"Given a choice between being happy or being efficient and safe, I'll take efficient and safe," Buckhorn said Wednesday. "Because I can guarantee you that if we had had problems, if there had been serious chaos in the streets, then that would have been far more damaging to us as a community."
As a DNC delegate, Buckhorn arrived in North Carolina Tuesday to see first hand how Charlotte is hosting the Democrats. He quickly agreed with what seems to be a consensus from people who attended both conventions:
Charlotte's streets are busy and crowded, and Tampa's were mostly barren.
But Buckhorn suggested Charlotte's security might be too lax. He said he was surprised by how close members of the public could get to buildings where some DNC events are being held. In Tampa, the public was stopped blocks away. In Charlotte, people can touch the buildings but not get in.
"That could end up in a bad situation," Buckhorn said. "I think potentially, there's always that opportunity for a conflict to occur, particularly as aggressive as these folks are. When you start talking about abortion and gay rights, people take that seriously and they're passionate about it — on both sides. Some of the venomous stuff you hear is disconcerting."
He said he saw "potential conflicts" numerous times on Tuesday where he thought delegates who back abortion rights were going to end up in a fight with antiabortion protesters.
"I saw it right outside the convention center," he said. "To me, that wasn't the environment that I wanted, that's not why we hosted this."
He did concede one regret: A street festival that Charlotte helped organize on Monday to launch the DNC brought in thousands. It was open to the public and included street vendors and live music, including a band fronted by Jeff Bridges. Tampa offered nothing like it.
"CarolinaFest was a great move," Buckhorn said. "That's the one thing we didn't do, that if we had to do it over, I'd have more events open to the public. In hindsight, it would have been great for our citizens to be able to come down and enjoy it."
Buckhorn said he and his staff were so busy, preoccupied with warding off threats from potential protesters, they had no time to consider it.
"We were stretched so thin doing everything else that we really didn't have time to do the party planning," he said.
Buckhorn said he doesn't regret the emphasis on security, even as the threat from protesters never materialized.
Police in Tampa prepared for 1,000 arrests. They ended up making only two. (Charlotte reported 15 arrests as of Wednesday). The security perimeter surrounding the Tampa Bay Times Forum and Tampa Convention Center was four times larger than any previous convention.
"The way we did it, by de-escalating the aggression, left the protesters, the police officers and the organizers happy," Buckhorn said. "So everyone won. They got to do their thing, we didn't let their aggression cause us to react with aggression.
"I'd rather be known for being the city that set the benchmark for how a convention should be run, how major international events should be organized," Buckhorn said. "I can live with the criticism."
Security aside, Buckhorn said Charlotte has advantages Tampa did not.
Charlotte has more restaurants and shops closer to the security perimeter, while Tampa had a moonscape of empty parking lots.
Light rail helps shuttle passengers back and forth in Charlotte, while most delegates in Tampa were stuck on buses and saw as much of downtown as their windows allowed. And there is still no obvious retail corridor like the one in Charlotte.
"I'm stuck with a development pattern from 30 years ago," Buckhorn said. "I'm stuck with the hand I've been dealt. Different cities, different personalities, different dynamics."
It's not like Buckhorn isn't fitting in during his stay in Charlotte. After being one of the few Democrats in Tampa, he is happy to be back among political friends.
On Wednesday, Buckhorn didn't plan to speak at a Florida delegation breakfast, but when asked to give a few quick words, he delivered a rousing speech that was one of the better received of the day.
"As the only Democrat who spoke at the Republican National Convention, I was looking for the trap door when I got up there on the stage," Buckhorn told the Florida Democrats. "Because I figured if I said anything that sounded anything like hope and change, I was going down. God forbid if I had said 'President Obama' they would have just ejected me from that place."
Rather than assuming the cheerleader role of the Republican convention, which he had been doing as mayor, he offered a few broadsides.
"What I didn't see was what I saw last night (at the DNC)," he said. "What I didn't see was an arena that looked like America. What I didn't see was black and white, Hispanic, young and old, rich and those who aspire to be, gay, straight, folks who believe in something bigger than themselves, who understood that we are stronger together … what I didn't hear was hope for America. What I didn't hear was a path to a brighter future."
He followed that five-minute pep talk with a round of half a dozen interviews with reporters, offering his opinions on everything from what the Democrats need to do to win to Charlie Crist's chances of beating Gov. Rick Scott in 2014.
This week will continue to be hectic with meetings and interviews.
"It's really a whirlwind, it's a blur just like last week was," he said. "The difference is, I'm not in charge."