TAMPA — No sooner did Mayor Bob Buckhorn opt out of next year's race for governor than he started to hear from other Democrats who suddenly wanted to be his new best friend.
Buckhorn, 58, posted his decision to social media Thursday at 5 a.m. By about 8:30 a.m. he had a telephone message from Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum — the first of the remaining Democratic prospects to check in.
By lunch, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine had texted to say he would be in Tampa soon, so how about coffee? Later Levine's staff emailed reporters a statement calling Buckhorn "one of America's great mayors." Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee likewise not only called, but issued a public statement describing Buckhorn as "a good friend" and "an extraordinary leader."
Buckhorn's announcement that he won't seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018 means the Tampa Bay area, with no favorite son in the mix, will likely see a lot more of Democrats who want to build name recognition in and raise money from one of Florida's biggest media markets.
Expect "a courtship," City Council chairman Mike Suarez predicted.
"They're doing exactly what I would do if I was in their shoes," said Buckhorn, who said he knows all the potential candidates, though not well. He said he does think Tallahassee "needs a regime change," so he'll be listening to each. "I'm appreciative of their newfound affection for me."
After a full 18 months of flirting with the idea of running to succeed Gov. Rick Scott, Buckhorn said two things led him to decide against spending the next 18 months campaigning for the job.
First, he doesn't want to miss important family moments with his daughters Grace, 15, and Colleen, 11, to pursue an "all-consuming" campaign.
"The state of Florida needs a course correction and a new direction," he said in a statement emailed to supporters. But "the timing for me and my family would be a challenge."
Also, he said he loves the job he has, and has work to do in the 24 months that remain before he is term-limited out of the mayor's office.
"Finishing Tampa's next chapter is more important than starting mine," said Buckhorn, whose second and last term ends in early 2019. "Absent extenuating circumstances, I intend to finish the job I was hired to do and prepare Tampa for the great things that are about to occur."
Along with Gillum, who announced he's running last week, Graham and Levine, the Democratic primary could include Orlando area personal injury lawyer John Morgan, Winter Park businessman Chris King and Palm Beach businessman Jeff Greene.
Buckhorn had riffed on the idea of running for governor since, literally, the morning after Scott defeated former Gov. Charlie Crist to win a second term in 2014. Like many politicians considering a statewide run, he set up his own political action committee, One Florida, and said he would be spending months talking with people around the state about the idea.
Buckhorn has long felt that telling Tampa's story — the story of a city that was, he says, "knocked to its knees" by the recession, only to surf back to life on a wave of downtown construction — would give him an optimistic and can-do message for Florida voters.
Deciding not to run was hard, he said.
"I looked for every way I could to get to 'yes,' " he said. "I think I've got a record that speaks volumes. I think the Tampa renaissance would have been a pretty compelling message. ... I thought I could win. I certainly thought I could govern."
But it was increasingly Buckhorn was taking few steps to run. He was not raising much money (His PAC, One Florida, has taken in less than $140,000 in cash.). Nor was he interviewing or hiring professionals to run a statewide campaign.
Buckhorn does have several ambitious projects or initiatives that he wants to see through over the next two years, and he keeps a countdown clock in his office to let him know how much time he as left. (As of Thursday, it read 751 days, with hours, minutes and seconds counting down in red numbers like a bomb in a James Bond movie.)
Those efforts include:
• Helping Strategic Property Partners — the company formed by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment — launch the first phase of a $3 billion redevelopment around Amalie Arena. About $30 million in road and infrastructure work on the site is underway now, with construction planned for a new Morsani College of Medicine building for the University of South Florida, a high-rise hotel, offices and apartments.
• Planning for the redevelopment of an area north of downtown Tampa known as the West River. Plans call for tearing down North Boulevard Homes, Tampa's oldest public housing complex, and replacing it with a walkable community and a mix of subsidized housing and apartments or townhomes that rent or sell on the open market. Buckhorn already is spending $35.5 million to redevelop Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park as a center of recreation and activity for the area.
• Helping the Tampa Bay Rays find a home that keeps the team in the bay area. The Rays are looking at possible sites for a new ballpark in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
• Working to bring new commercial development to land the city owns along the 22nd Street N corridor in East Tampa.
"I have learned here that what gets done is what the boss is paying attention to," he said.
Several council members welcomed his decision.
"I'm glad he's finishing the job," said council member Yvonne Yolie Capin, an occasional critic of the mayor's priorities and cheerleading style. "I think he's done a decent job here. There's a lot going on in the city of Tampa, and we need a full-time mayor."
Times staff writer Paul Guzzo contributed to this report. Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times