Tuesday, July 17, 2018

For Tampa's Bob Buckhorn, the photo op is the message

TAMPA — Now here's some news: There are, in fact, photos that Tampa mayor and potential Democratic candidate for governor Bob Buckhorn will not take.

Not that you'd know it. His six years in office have amassed a View-Master's worth of images of the mayor:

Blasting away on a .50-caliber machine gun, driving an earth mover and smashing into a vacant house with a tractor-mounted demolition claw.

Flying a kite, riding bikes, gliding along a zipline, sliding down a children's slide and playing basketball both in and out of a wheelchair.

Dancing on stage between a Bollywood movie star and B-list actor Stephen Baldwin.

When it comes to policies and programs, Buckhorn once said his role model was Rudy Giuliani — the '90s version who focused on Times Square, not the more recent Donald Trump supporter. But stylistically, Buckhorn, 58, might be closer to another New York mayor: Fiorello La Guardia.

Both commandeered the technology of the moment. For La Guardia, that meant reading Little Orphan Annie on the radio. For Buckhorn, it's Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Instead of the Sunday funnies, he touts his city and shares photos of the place, the people — and yes, of himself — doing virtually anything.

Not everyone is amused.

One critic says his style matters less than what he does for the least of his constituents — whether it's helping move them out of poverty or creating an independent police review board.

"You can do it with a lot of style and you can do it very quietly," says the Rev. Russell Meyer, co-chairman of Tampa for Justice, which opposes Buckhorn's review board. "We think that when you're an elected official, you're elected to provide leadership to all the people under your jurisdiction, not just the ones you favor."

For Buckhorn, his public relations strategy is just one part of an administration that he says has built a strong record in economic development, public safety and broad-based outreach.

He says the motive behind his camera-friendly approach is twofold: First, he just really loves being mayor (and can tell you at any given moment the days remaining until he term-limits out in 2019). Second, photo ops with a twist have a better shot at getting people to focus on what's going on in his city.

"If I'm standing there just cutting the ribbon," he says, "no one's going to pay attention."

And Buckhorn — who says he'll make some decisions about running for governor in coming months — always wants you paying attention.

• • •

Perhaps the photo that best sums up the Buckhorn brand was taken at the reopening of a city pool in 2014: The mayor was dressed in a crisp jacket and perfectly knotted tie — with a duck-shaped float around his waist.

"He'll try anything," says former Mayor Sandy Freedman, who hired him as her special assistant in the late 1980s.

The opening of a fancy new hotel in Tampa's once-flatlining downtown? He stretches out on a luxurious bed. Dyeing the Hills­borough River — backdrop for the newly-completed Riverwalk — for St. Patrick's Day? He's in green shamrock pants.

He'll swing a hockey stick, hoist a meat cleaver, dress like a firefighter, don a flight suit or jump on a water bike. He'll taunt Gasparilla pirates with a key to the city. And yes, hand him that inflatable duck.

"Anytime I get, even at my own expense, the opportunity to celebrate what we're doing and to showcase what we're doing and to have people find humor in what we're doing — even if I'm the butt of my own joke — I think it's good for the city," Buckhorn says. "Because it tells a story."

That do-anything-for-the-camera bent seems at odds with the conservative wardrobe of a man who once said light starch is as casual as he gets.

Beth Leytham, Tampa public relations consultant and Buckhorn friend, once tried to loosen his look by suggesting an open collar and blazer and reaching for his precisely folded, ever-present pocket square.

"You're not even allowed to touch them," she says.

But then there he is, lying down at a new downtown skate park, a skateboarder sailing over his midsection.

"Bob is not as buttoned-up as people think," says Tampa political consultant Ana Cruz. "Metaphorically, Bob is not buttoned-up at all."

• • •

If one side of the Buckhorn coin is his heady exhilaration at being mayor, the other is the loss and humiliation he endured on the way.

A Penn State grad, Buckhorn arrived in Tampa in his 20s after a flaw in one eye — misdiagnosed, he maintains — got him washed out of flight school as an aspiring Navy fighter pilot.

Buckhorn soon began volunteering on local Democratic campaigns. Then-state Sen. Pat Frank introduced him to Freedman, a City Council member getting ready to run for mayor.

After Freedman won, Buckhorn served as her special assistant and strutted around like a future mayor himself. A former council member said it was like watching a West Wing character.

In 1995, Buckhorn was elected to the first of two terms on the City Council. It was there he was most in Giuliani mode, targeting all-night raves and all-nude lap-dancing.

Still, three attempts to get to the next level stalled. He lost a Democratic primary for the state House and finished out of the running in the 2003 primary for mayor. And a decade before Trump upended Hillary Clinton's plans with his didn't-see-it-coming victory, Buckhorn lost a County Commission race to an ex-professional wrestler.

Since winning the mayor's job in 2011, Buckhorn has focused on promoting development, recruiting business and upgrading parks and public spaces. A pro-business policy wonk and a 25-year supporter of the Clintons, he was mentioned as a possible member of a Hillary Clinton administration.

Having failed and come back before, Buckhorn says he's not worried about failing again. So he does what he wants — from posing as the Wizard of Oz at the Glazer Children's Museum to speaking bluntly.

In a battle over red-light cameras, he suggested certain City Council members up for election may have been showboating. When a member of the seven-member council threatened to oppose the mayor's budget unless it included funding for a public pool, Buckhorn quipped, "I only need four votes."

After the Tampa Bay Times detailed concerns from female firefighters about discrimination and a hostile work environment, Buckhorn ordered more diversity training and privacy in firehouse dorms. He also grumbled about "a few chronic whiners" who "complain about everything."

Buckhorn says he's more focused on finding common ground than in his younger days and less likely to cock his elbows back for a fight. But, yes, he says, "I will bow up on occasion when I think I'm in the right, and there are some things I'm not willing to budge on."

• • •

Detractors roll their eyes at things Buckhornian, like his name on the pillars at one of the city's most successful new parks, Water Works. He has come under criticism that he's too focused on boosterism.

Amid debate over homelessness in 2013, council member Yvonne Yolie Capin said everyone called Buckhorn a cheerleader. What the city needed, she said, was a quarterback.

Council member Frank Reddick, who has clashed with Buckhorn repeatedly, says it seems he often opens Buckhorn's weekly email newsletter to see a photo of the mayor embracing African-American children.

"It amazes me when I see those pictures," he says, because Buckhorn has not done enough to improve "economic conditions where those kids live."

True, Buckhorn's administration has demolished dozens of vacant houses in Sulphur Springs and replaced them with new ones. It got nonprofits to pay for half of a $1 million synthetic ballfield there. And it welcomed the arrival of a Walmart Supercenter with a staff of 300 to E Hillsborough Avenue.

But Reddick says more is needed to create jobs.

"That's the feeling of a lot of people in East Tampa," says Reddick, who represents the area. "I hear it all the time."

Still, it's clear that Tampa has been reshaped — and in some spots, resurrected — during Buckhorn's years in office.

Buckhorn points to parks, the busy Riverwalk, billions in new construction, a downtown that's far from a ghost town — and says his city's best days are to come.

If Buckhorn hadn't pulled off actual change, "then he'd look like a goofball that's just posing for photo ops," said Cruz, the political consultant. "Bob has far more accomplishments than he has photo ops."

• • •

Buckhorn says he'll make some decisions about running for governor in the first quarter of 2017. If he does run, could some of his more goofy photos resurface?

Yes, says Tampa political consultant April Schiff, who generally works with Republicans. She likes Buckhorn's cheerleading. But she also tells clients, "if you're running for governor, you need to look and act gubernatorial at all times."

"Given the state of political campaigns today, if I were advising him my fear would be that consultants would take that stuff and use it much to his detriment," she said.

Well, of course, Buckhorn says.

"I'm sure political opponents will find some way to make me regret some of them," he says.

But that won't stop him from grabbing props for the cameras — with those few exceptions when he just says no.

"I don't put on real silly hats," he says. "Everyone wants to put a hat on you."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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