TAMPA — For Bob Buckhorn, being the smallest player on his high school and college lacrosse teams was good preparation for a career in politics.
"It was a lot of high sticks and low blows," says Buckhorn, one of five people on the March 1 ballot for mayor of Tampa.
At 5-foot-8 and 145 pounds, Buckhorn learned to be quick and seize on opportunities to score. His position on Penn State's lacrosse team: attackman.
Thirty years later, Buckhorn again is on the offensive, usually against the presumed frontrunner, former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco. Buckhorn frames the race as a choice between the past and the future, as in, "the stories of the past are not strategies for the future."
Buckhorn, 52, estimates he has visited 20,000 homes since getting into the race in May. To Greco's annoyance, he snagged an early endorsement from the influential firefighters union before Greco entered the race.
A serious student of government, Buckhorn can discuss what New York or Charlotte or San Francisco are doing on crime, mass transit and stadium financing. And he casts every issue, down to adding bike lanes to roads, the same way: What can Tampa do to attract high-tech companies and smart, young professionals?
For some, however, Buckhorn carries baggage from his two terms on the Tampa City Council. There he was the face of the city's efforts to outlaw lap-dancing in strip clubs. Critics say the effort revealed a streak of self-righteousness and opportunism.
Then there's his track record running for public office: 2 and 3, with a loss in the primary for a state House seat in 1992, a third-place finish in 2003's five-way race for mayor and a loss to former pro wrestler Brian Blair in a 2004 County Commission race.
Buckhorn acknowledges that some see him as "too ambitious and too slick." But he and others who know him well says he's matured since starting a family. "I do this now for different reasons," he says.
Tampa is no longer the up-and-coming city others talk about, he says. He wants it to be a place his daughters, now 5 and 9, will return to after college. "My daughters are not going to come home to a call center job," he told the Kiwanis Club this week, "and neither are yours."
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Buckhorn grew up in Falls Church, Va., outside Washington, D.C., the oldest of three boys. His father was an editor with the United Press International wire service and served as chief spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.
When Buckhorn was in the fourth grade, his mother drove him to the headquarters of Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. There, he stuffed envelopes and fell in love with the music of politics.
"I got the bug at a very early age and have never really stopped," he says.
The Tampa mayor's race is nonpartisan, but Buckhorn is a Democrat who has long been aligned with the party's centrist Democratic Leadership Council. You can hear him working to channel his inner Kennedy when he says he wants to "give Tampa its wings," the line he uses to end every speech.
In high school, Buckhorn played soccer and lacrosse and served in student government, then went to Penn State, a university that was "always around our family," partly because his mom grew up on the same block as legendary football coach Joe Paterno. There, he majored in political science.
After college, Buckhorn says he wanted to test himself against the best in the world, so he entered training to become a Navy fighter pilot. He washed out after two weeks when Navy doctors diagnosed a rare degenerative disease in his right cornea.
Buckhorn says civilian doctors later said he had no such flaw, only small scratches on his cornea. But with his fighter-pilot dream down in flames, he drove his 1966 Dodge Dart from Pensacola to Tampa.
He worked as a sales rep for Land O'Lakes dairy products. He began volunteering in political campaigns, first for John Glenn, later for Pam Iorio when she won a County Commission seat at the age of 25.
After working as a lobbyist for the Builders Association of Greater Tampa in 1985, he joined the mayoral campaign of Sandy Freedman.
Freedman won, and Buckhorn moved to City Hall. As her special assistant, he worked on projects such as removing MacDill Air Force Base from a Pentagon list of bases to be closed.
"He really did a great job on MacDill," Freedman says. "I let him loose, and he went to work."
In his early 30s, Buckhorn was brash, plugged in and opinionated. His style was high preppy, all sharp creases, starched shirts and bold suspenders.
Thinking back, Linda Saul-Sena, then on the City Council, says it was like watching The West Wing, with Buckhorn as a young and energetic White House aide. "He was a very high-profile person in her administration," Saul-Sena says. "I think his ambition to serve as mayor was always there."
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In 1995, Buckhorn jumped into a City Council race, defeating restaurateur Helen Chavez, often remembered for wanting to create a "primitive section" at Tampa Stadium for loud-mouthed, shirtless Bucs fans.
Buckhorn campaigned as more conservative than Freedman, modeling himself on New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Central to his approach was a law-enforcement theory used by Giuliani known as "Broken Windows." First articulated in 1982, it goes like this: If you don't fix a broken window in a building, it sends the message that no one cares. Soon all the windows will be broken, vandals will hit other buildings and the street will go downhill. Stop small crimes, and you stop big ones.
On the council, Buckhorn worked on various issues: expanding the homestead exemption for seniors as well as passing tougher rules on lobbying and ethics.
But he made his name on what he calls "quality of life" law enforcement issues: curfews, all-night raves, drug-dealing, prostitution and lap-dancing.
The lap-dancing controversy turned into a mini-battlefront in the culture wars, culminating in a big public hearing at the Tampa Convention Center. Saul-Sena says it soaked up "an extraordinary amount of energy from the city staff and City Council."
"Given the variety and complexity of things facing our community, I felt that it took a disproportionate amount of time," she says.
Among those who spoke in favor of the ordinance was then-Mayor Greco, but the person people remember is Buckhorn, who says that's okay.
He says he wasn't trying to impose his moral code on anyone. He thought Tampa deserved better than to be known as the strip-club capital of the United States.
At a party last summer, Buckhorn ran into his old nemesis, strip club owner Joe Redner.
As the two stood on the back porch, Redner asked if Buckhorn still wanted to target adult businesses.
"He said he had more important things to do," says Redner, who unsuccessfully challenged Buckhorn's re-election in 1999. But Redner still has doubts about Buckhorn.
"Sometimes, it's not knowing what to do; it's knowing what not to do," he says. "I'm not sure he always knows what not to do."
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As mayor, Buckhorn says his administration would focus on making Tampa an easier place to open and run a business.
He proposes creating two deputy mayors, one for economic opportunity and the other for neighborhood and community empowerment.
He also wants a task force on streamlining regulations, a master plan to guide urban growth, a housing program similar to Freedman's nationally recognized Challenge Fund and a one-stop licensing program to help small business.
With that approach, say Buckhorn's business-community supporters, he could promote growth while still being attentive to residents' concerns.
"I think Bob would have a good balance, whereas I'm not so sure about some of the others," says longtime friend Glen Cross, who developed FishHawk Ranch.
Friends also say the connection Buckhorn draws between his daughters' future and his campaign is sincere. As a father, they say, he's grown up and settled down.
Doing things like making breakfast and taking his girls to school has broadened Buckhorn's perspective and made him more empathetic, says former County Commissioner Ben Wacksman.
"He's always wanted to bring Tampa to the next level," Wacksman says. But "over the years, he's evolved as a person."