TAMPA — Local Democrats are giddy about their party's chances in the November election and it showed at the party's annual fundraising dinner this month as dozens of officials and candidates swelled the excited crowd to unprecedented size.
But conspicuously absent from the Aug. 6 event was the top elected Democrat in Hillsborough County, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, even though he's a regular subject of speculation as the party seeks a nominee for governor in 2018. Buckhorn wasn't invited to speak, nor was he last year.
There has been tension between the mayor and local Democrats over a number of issues — his tendency to support or work with Republicans such as Attorney General Pam Bondi and Gov. Rick Scott, his lack of enthusiasm for engagement with Cuba and his defense of the Tampa Police Department in its targeting of black bicycle riders.
Some local Democrats say Buckhorn's disagreements with constituencies including civil rights activists, unions and liberals could doom his 2018 hopes. They question his commitment to the party and often point to a north Florida congresswoman as frontrunner for governor.
"I'm hearing more enthusiasm for Gwen Graham than anybody else," said Democratic donor and fundraiser Tom Hall of Tampa.
"There are a lot of Democrats that resent the fact that Bob Buckhorn did not support Charlie Crist," against Scott in 2014, "and Pam Bondi is probably the most disliked person in Florida among Democrats," Hall said.
Still, other Democrats, including some prominent statewide, say Buckhorn's local problems won't matter if he can muster the financial and popular support for a statewide race.
• • •
Steve Schale, a top statewide Democratic strategist who's working with Graham, said Buckhorn would have to answer for his ties to Scott and Bondi in a Democratic primary, but added, "The things that are going to determine whether someone can run for governor aren't related to the local party. It's whether you can raise the money and is the support out there."
Alex Sink, a Tampa Democrat who won election as state comptroller and lost her bid for governor against Scott, said Buckhorn's problems with local Democrats are "blips, given his total history. I don't question his Democratic credentials at all."
Buckhorn says he's interested in the 2018 race, but won't act on it until after the Nov. 8 election.
Any talk about him as a potential gubernatorial candidate had waned recently but revived after his rousing speech to the Florida delegation at the Democratic National Convention in July.
"It was all the buzz the next day," Sink said.
And while Buckhorn didn't get to the podium at the local Democratic fundraising dinners, he received recognition from Hillary Clinton in her campaign appearances this month — in St. Petersburg and at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
In a wide-ranging interview this week, Buckhorn said most actions that have angered local Democrats — particularly his refusal to get involved in the Scott-Crist race — were to benefit Tampa.
Scott, Buckhorn noted, could have vetoed $200 million in state money for a critical Tampa International Airport expansion or $22 million to move the University of South Florida medical school downtown — a cornerstone of the effort revive the area.
"If I had gotten involved those things probably would not have happened," he said. "I had to put my mayor's hat on."
• • •
Still, Democrats weren't pleased when Buckhorn praised and buddied up with Scott at events announcing grants for the airport and Moffitt Cancer Center in 2014, while Scott was running for re-election and then joined with the few mayors to publicly endorse Scott's 2015 budget request for $250 million in Enterprise Florida business recruitment incentives.
He backed Republicans including Bondi and state Rep. Shawn Harrison because they were loyal friends of the city, Buckhorn said.
The mayor's name was on the host committee for Bondi's re-election kickoff fundraiser in Tampa in 2014, but even so, he said, he didn't contribute and didn't attend. Still, local Democrats angrily note this was the fundraiser Bondi delayed an execution to attend, sparking an outcry.
Buckhorn said he has publicly backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement — despite opposition from unions, the all-Democrat Tampa City Council, and even after Hillary Clinton wobbled on the issue — because Port Tampa Bay and international trade are important to the city's economy.
He said he won't oppose an opening to Cuba or a Cuban consulate in Tampa but also won't fight for one alongside the City Council and Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, partly because of "the experience of the people that I represent and what they went through under Castro and communist takeover. Some of their stories are horrible."
"If I'm going to spend political capital and time building international relations and trade, it's going to be with areas that will be more productive for Tampa than Cuba will be," he said, noting its moribund economy.
That sets him at odds with mainstream Democratic leaders including Hillary Clinton and Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, who's pushing for the consulate.
But the break reflects the division between newer Cuban immigrants who fled the Castro regime and Tampa's large population of third- and fourth-generation Cuban-Americans who are less hostile to the regime.
At a high school reunion recently, older Cubans told City Council member Yolie Capin, "What he's doing is denying the history that Tampa has with Cuba," she said.
• • •
Over the last year, guided by Tampa Democratic strategist Ana Cruz, Buckhorn has reached out to influential Democrats and donors statewide to test the waters for 2018.
His One Florida PAC still has raised only $139,925 compared to nearly $5.5 million raised by the Florida Grown PAC of agriculture commissioner and likely GOP candidate Adam Putnam. The imbalance is another reason for the decline in talk about Buckhorn for 2018.
But Buckhorn said he hasn't been asking for money. "I'm only trying to get around and meet people and tell them Tampa's story."
He describes himself as a lifelong Democrat from a Democratic family, though more oriented to business and economic development than many members of his party.
That matches a description by his first political mentor, former Mayor Sandy Freedman, who called him liberal on social issues but said he "leans more toward business than most Democrats do."
He started his political career working for her first mayoral campaign at 26, and then as her City Hall aide.
"He was always a Democrat, and I think he always will be, but we used to kid him and say, 'When are you going to become a Republican?' " she said.
On her staff, she said, Buckhorn advocated police chases and a juvenile curfew — she disagreed — and routinely accompanied police on ride-alongs. While she wanted to focus on neighborhoods, "His emphasis was in the other direction" — citywide economic development.
He's still criticized by some for that outlook.
"There are concerns that he's too much of a corporate Democrat, and the party's moving away from that," said Susan Smith of Tampa, president of the state Democratic Party's Progressive Caucus.
But Freedman said Buckhorn supported her work on race relations, even when it angered the business community. That laid the foundation, she said, for Buckhorn's longtime alliance with Tampa's black community.
She and others insisted this alliance endures today despite harsh public criticism of Buckhorn by some civil rights groups and City Council member Frank Reddick over the police bicycle policy and the successful push it generated for a police review board.
Buckhorn faces a generational break, with newer, younger black leaders blasting him while many older ones remain in his corner.
"A lot of people didn't agree with him on those issues, but that's life," said one of those senior leaders, state Sen. Arthenia Joyner. "At the convention, people were telling me, 'Your mayor sounds like he ought to be governor.' I'd say he's like a prophet without honor at home."
Contact William March at [email protected]