TAMPA — After dominating national news the last week of August, when it hosted the Republican National Convention, Tampa experienced a curious half-life in the spotlight last week at the Democrats' convention in Charlotte, N.C.
As Democratic Party leaders tried to offer a vision for President Barack Obama's second term in office, they frequently invoked Tampa. But if civic boosters at City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce were hoping that the GOP convention would raise the city's national profile, this probably wasn't the portrait they were expecting.
Democrats weren't referencing Tampa's nurturing business climate or proximity to Gulf of Mexico beaches. Instead, the city's name functioned as a kind of shorthand for people and policies that the Democratic Party considers a threat to the country's future.
Some say the heavy rotation that Tampa got in critical speeches by some of the country's best-known politicians has raised questions about whether its legacy from the GOP convention, at least for those who lean to the political left, could be more negative than positive.
"I definitely think that Tampa has become an epithet for Democrats or progressives," said Wayne Garcia, a former political consultant and journalist who now teaches at the University of South Florida School of Mass Communications. "It was disturbing to have Tampa get flogged so badly by everyone at the Democratic National Convention. It was as if Tampa was the breeding ground for conservative Republican thought and people."
Considering that Tampa is a city controlled by Democrats, in a swing region that is a bastion of moderate Republicans, it was odd to hear powerful Democrats referring to Tampa in the ominous key that previous generations of American politicians reserved for Moscow or Havana.
This time, it wasn't communist social engineering that was being decried, but what Democrats attacked as an absolutist strain of individualism.
"Of all the fictions we heard last week in Tampa, the one I find most troubling is this: If we all just go our own way, our nation will be stronger for it," said keynote speaker Julián Castro, mayor of San Antonio, Texas.
"In Tampa — in Tampa — did y'all watch their convention? I did," said former President Bill Clinton. "In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president's re-election was actually pretty simple, pretty snappy. It went something like this: 'We left him a total mess, he hasn't cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.' "
Not all took the repeated nods to Tampa as a slight. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat who has drawn praise for hosting a convention that was virtually seamless from a security perspective, said the city's frequent mention in Charlotte just served to raise its profile for prospective tourists and businesses.
"Any time the world hears the word 'Tampa,' that just reinforces in their mind that there are other places in Florida besides Miami and Orlando," Buckhorn said.
"It just happened to be in our town, but our town had its own set of positives," said state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who attended the convention in Charlotte as a Florida delegate. "People were able to distinguish that from the convention."
In the midst of an intensely partisan election, one might expect a negative Democratic impression of Tampa to have a positive mirror image among Republicans. That's not necessarily the case for what many political observers say was a dispassionate gathering, perhaps most memorable for an 82-year-old Hollywood actor's public interrogation of a piece of furniture on the convention's final night.
"That crowd — the people on the floor, the delegates — was the most muted I've ever seen," said Chris Ingram, a Tampa-based Republican political consultant and commentator who has attended three other GOP national conventions.
Garcia said Tampa's historical resonance for Republicans will depend on the results of November's presidential election. If Republican nominee Mitt Romney wins, Tampa might be seen as the springboard he used to reclaim the White House for Republicans.
If Obama wins, Garcia said, "then Tampa was the beginning of the end — the place where the message was rejected."
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.