After winning an overwhelming victory over Rose Ferlita, incoming Mayor Bob Buckhorn talked Tuesday night of making Tampa a city of destiny, hope and opportunity.
"You have filled me with a new hope about our future, and you have reminded me of what makes Tampa special," the 52-year-old former City Council member told a broad coalition of supporters at a victory party at Channelside at Bay Plaza.
Ferlita, 65, had called Buckhorn moments earlier to congratulate him. Then she made a graceful concession speech.
"I will look forward to serving this community in some other capacity," she told a disappointed crowd at the Sons of Italy Hall in West Tampa.
With all votes counted, Buckhorn defeated Ferlita 63 percent to 37 percent. Turnout was just 22.3 percent, only slightly better than in the March 1 primary.
Buckhorn, a one-time aide to former Mayor Sandy Freedman, will return to City Hall on April 1, succeeding two-term Mayor Pam Iorio, who is leaving because of term limits.
As mayor, he will oversee a city budget of $787 million and more than 4,000 employees. Among his first challenges: closing a multimillion-dollar gap in next year's city budget.
Buckhorn took the stage at Channelside to his campaign theme song, Bruce Springsteen's No Surrender.
"You know, 11 months ago when we started on this journey, nobody believed that we would be here," said Buckhorn, who raised less money than either Ferlita or former Mayor Dick Greco in the primary but managed to edge Greco by less than 400 votes to make Tuesday's runoff.
Surrounded by campaign volunteers in yellow Buckhorn T-shirts and Tampa firefighters in red T-shirts, Buckhorn said, "We can be that city in America that everybody talks about.
"We don't have to lose our kids to Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte, N.C., and Austin, Texas," he said. "We want to keep our best and brightest kids right here. That's what this campaign has been all about. That's what our future is all about."
The firefighters union was the first to endorse Buckhorn, months before the field was set, and firefighter volunteers worked doggedly for the campaign, waving signs and knocking on doors.
After thanking his family and campaign staff, Buckhorn thanked the firefighters next, saying they were "there from the beginning, never wavering."
"They stepped out early, they sent a message and they never stopped walking, house after house after house," he said.
At her party in West Tampa, Ferlita pledged to stay until the last person left and began dancing with supporters after her concession speech.
"It's not about the race you lost. It's about the friends you have," she said. "We worked hard. We didn't get there. But Jesus Lord, we tried like hell."
Asked whether Iorio's endorsement of Buckhorn played a role, she said, "I was disappointed about that," saying that Iorio had told her in advance that she wouldn't endorse in the race.
"What if I had won?" Ferlita asked. "That would have made for a difficult transition."
Still, Ferlita ended the campaign on a classy note.
She said she regretted attacks that ripped Buckhorn over his business experience and for claiming — falsely, according to PolitiFact Florida — that he supported forcing police officers to put their guns in the trunks of their cruisers.
Toward the end of the campaign, she said, her campaign advisers wanted her to send out one last negative mailer. Without going into details, she said it might have changed the election results, or so her consultants believed.
"Win or lose, I wouldn't have liked myself," she said.
But for some voters, the damage had already been done.
"I was (for) Ferlita once it went to a runoff, but when she went negative, that instantly turned me off," said elementary school teacher Steven Florio, 32, who voted at Seminole Heights Baptist Church.
At his party, Buckhorn talked of building a campaign around Tampa's diversity — "black, white, Hispanic, young, not so young, affluent and those who aspire to be, gay, straight, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, all brought together by a belief in something bigger than themselves."
And at polling places around the city, Buckhorn voters said they believed he understood them.
In Seminole Heights, mechanic Reginald Hopkins, 51, said he had never met Buckhorn but had seen him around and had heard good things about him from neighbors. He said he felt that Buckhorn has a good presence in the black community, while all he knew about Ferlita is that she owned a pharmacy on Nebraska Avenue.
Mario Quevedo, 66, said he was for Buckhorn because "I'm a Cuban exile, and Bob Buckhorn has been our friend for 30 years." He was especially impressed during a recent candidate forum, when Buckhorn held fast against trade with a communist Cuba.
At Palma Ceia Baptist Church in South Tampa, Dennis Murray, 51, said he didn't know much about either candidate, having voted for Ed Turanchik on March 1. Turanchik's endorsement of Buckhorn decided Murray's vote.
"If (Turanchik) feels like he's a solid candidate, then I'm going to support him," said Murray, a civil engineer who has lived in Tampa for 27 years.
At the First Baptist Church across from the University of Tampa, Tammy George had no such doubts about Buckhorn.
"He is the perfect mayor for Tampa," said George, 47, who lives downtown and works as a standardized testing scoring director. "He has a clear vision of what he wants to do, while his opponent just doesn't."
Ferlita voters were just as fervent, if not more so, but not nearly as numerous.
Leslie Bush, 69 and born in Honduras, said in Spanish that she backed Ferlita because "she will be a good mayor for the city of Tampa."
While Iorio endorsed Buckhorn during the campaign, some voters said they saw Ferlita as being most like the incumbent mayor.
"I voted for Rose Ferlita because last time we had a female mayor, and she did very well," said Aldo Ciccarello, 67, at St. John Presbyterian Church in West Tampa. "Also, I met her a few times, and I spoke with her, and I liked her."
Outside the Sons of Italy Hall in West Tampa early Tuesday evening, a black Chevy Suburban had its radio cranked, playing the Black Eyed Peas' I Gotta Feeling, with it's refrain, "I've got a feeling that tonight's going to be a good night."
But inside the meeting hall, a group of 200 or more Ferlita supporters, many wearing the lime green colors of the Ferlita campaign, soon had their doubts.
"Obviously, we're disappointed," said Mark Cox, spokesman for Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, who had endorsed Ferlita. "She ran a hard campaign."
Times staff writers Ileana Morales, Philip Morgan, Jack Nicas and Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.