Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn working to raise statewide profile

His city is his love, but there's an eye toward Florida politics.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is a shoo-in for re-election on March 3.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is a shoo-in for re-election on March 3.
Published February 16 2015

TAMPA — City elections are less than three weeks away, but Bob Buckhorn is looking a lot farther into the future than March 3.

The first-term mayor faces only token opposition for re-election to the nonpartisan job — a write-in candidate who once tried to run for the Legislature while in prison. Still, he has burned through half of the $396,000 his campaign has raised by running television ads and funding robocalls.

But the real campaign-style work the moderate Democrat has been engaged in is outside Tampa, including a regular gig on a Miami talk-radio station and a new political action committee with a decidedly statewide name, One Florida.

Buckhorn, 55, insists he'll wait at least two years before he decides whether he'll seek a statewide candidacy, governor or something else, though he joked about running for governor the morning after the Nov. 4 election. Yet there's no doubt he's hedging his bets. The PAC will provide resources for travel, to support allies for other political offices, maybe even launch an issue campaign.

Registered with the state on Dec. 10, One Florida raised $16,550 through the end of January, most of it from donors in or with ties to Tampa, including lawyers, building contractors, the police union and the PAC for Fifth Third Bank.

"It's actually what a guy who doesn't have a statewide profile should be doing four years out," said Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who has run and been a senior adviser to statewide campaigns for Barack Obama and Charlie Crist, among others. "The only way to get known really well is to spend money."

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The son of a wire service editor in Washington, D.C., Buckhorn has been a fixture in Tampa politics for more than 25 years. He started as a special assistant to Mayor Sandy Freedman, served two terms on the City Council and ran unsuccessfully for three offices — state representative, mayor and county commissioner — before winning a five-way mayor's race in 2011.

But outside the city, that narrative is largely unknown and Buckhorn is only one potential Democratic candidate for governor in 2018.

Other names that get mentioned include mayors — Buddy Dyer (Orlando), Jack Seiler (Fort Lauderdale), Alvin Brown (Jacksonville) and Philip Levine (Miami Beach) — as well as members of Congress like Kathy Castor from Tampa and Gwen Graham from North Florida. And there's even speculation Crist would try again.

But unlike some other Democrats, Buckhorn's profile as mayor has carried a notably bipartisan tone. He praises Gov. Rick Scott's efforts to recruit new companies to the bay area. He has also supported Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi, a longtime Tampa friend, even co-hosting the controversial Bondi fundraiser for which Scott postponed at her request an execution scheduled for the same night.

In a general election, it could help Buckhorn tell a compelling story about leadership and building successful coalitions, but if he competes in a primary, it could be a liability as the small minority of partisan voters who show up for primaries for either party tend to be more strident.

Yet the challenge Buckhorn is clearly tackling now is the need to increase his statewide name recognition. The annals of Florida politics are littered with highly successful local, state and federal politicians who aim statewide only to lose. Two local examples from 2006: former Democratic Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, who lost to Crist, then a Republican, in the gubernatorial race; and then-state Senate President Tom Lee of Brandon, a Republican, who lost a bid for chief financial officer.

"It's hard to get your arms around just how big and complicated the state is," Schale said.

At last count, Florida's population was 19.9 million; greater Tampa Bay's, 4.3 million.

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On Wednesday, Buckhorn spent 15 minutes touting his city and talking state politics on The Gray Zone, a Miami AM-radio program.

He riffed on the forced departure of Florida Department of Law Enforcement commissioner Gerald Bailey.

"A bad decision to fire a guy who had a 30-year record that was impeccable … and directed an agency that should not be political," Buckhorn said.

"How it was all handled really reflected poorly on the officials that were involved," he added, getting in digs at Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, both of whom could be Republican candidates to succeed Scott in 2018.

He criticized medical marijuana.

"I am married to a physician," said Buckhorn, who did not support last fall's referendum to allow medical marijuana. "I know that there's nothing medicinal about marijuana."

And he sidestepped a question about a Miami legislator's public restroom bill that critics said would discriminate against transgender people. Buckhorn said he had only seen a news story but had not read the bill. He did not mention transsexual or transgender people in his answer.

Instead, Buckhorn chose a more general theme that would be familiar to his audiences in Tampa.

"As a mayor, as a community and as a state, you can't afford to discriminate against anybody," he said. "In my community, I'm never, ever going to allow us to divide or demonize people based on race or creed or color, ethnicity, the God you worship or who you love. We are far more competitive as a community in Tampa because we treat everyone with dignity."

Buckhorn said he has done the radio show for two or three months at the request of producer Fred Menachem, a friend of 20 years.

Isn't it a way to build name recognition in Democrat-rich South Florida?

"That obviously happens to some degree," Buckhorn said, "but that's really not what the intent was. I'll go anywhere and talk to anybody about Tampa."

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