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Daniel Ruth

To him, 'politician' isn't a dirty word

Here's what I find charming about Tampa's Mayor-elect, Bob Buckhorn. • We live in a time when the term "politician" is held in the same level of esteem as used car dealer, porn theater owner and, yes, let me save you the trouble of bringing it up — journalist. • I've covered politics and campaigns for a very long time, and one of my biggest pet peeves is the candidate who insists he or she really isn't a "politician." They make that claim even as they ask people for money, hand out yard signs, beg for votes and engage in other behavior such as kissing babies, wearing funny hats and sitting through interminable community forums pretending to be interested.

Uh, excuse me, once you announce your candidacy, you're a politician. You might not be very good at it, but you're still a pol, a politico, a politician.

Buckhorn has never shied away from the label. He is an admitted serial politician in the first degree. Guilty as charged and proud of it.

There are probably many reasons why Buckhorn prevailed over Rose Ferlita on Tuesday night, winning the election for mayor with 63 percent of the vote. Certainly the endorsement of outgoing Mayor Pam Iorio helped. So did the support of two of his primary opponents, Ed Turanchik and Tom Scott.

Still, a case could be made that Buckhorn simply wasn't going to be outpoliticked. Some people are addicted to drugs, or hooch, or gambling. Buckhorn shakes hands. It would come as no surprise if when he wakes up every morning and hugs his young daughters, he also shakes their hands to stay in practice.

This penchant for pressing the flesh appears to have come naturally. On election night, as the new mayor was basking in the adoration of his supporters, Buckhorn's mother, Rita, stood a few feet away. She recalled how when barely a toddler, her loquacious son would amble down the street, cheerfully calling out to the neighbors. I was tempted to ask if young Robert wore a pinstripe suit and wing tips to kindergarten, but I was afraid of the answer.

In this cynical political climate, we ascribe all manner of nefarious motives to politicians — they are all crooked, or power-hungry, or tools of special interests.

Buckhorn certainly isn't immune to some of those temptations. He is, after all, a politician who understands he is an avowed practitioner of the art of influence.

But, at the risk of committing idealism, this is also a public figure very much a product of his times. Not to put too fine a point on this, but if you want to understand what makes Bob run, you have to understand another Bobby.

In 1968, when he was 10, Buckhorn was dropped off by his mother to work in the Washington presidential campaign headquarters of Robert Kennedy, who also never denied the moniker of "politician." The pol-child, inspired by RFK's sense of noblesse oblige, spent hours blissfully stuffing envelopes and doing odd jobs.

Buckhorn never met the New York senator. But after Kennedy was assassinated, he attended his funeral. At the age of 10, Buckhorn touched history, which has shaped his public aspirations ever since, sometimes almost too much.

There were moments earlier in his political career when Buckhorn's emulation of Kennedyesque mannerisms on the stump came off as too smooth, too practiced and too obviously ambitious. But losing a few elections, especially one to a guy in a bumblebee Speedo, took the bloom off Camelot pretty quickly.

By Tuesday night, it was an older, wiser, more mature and humbler Buckhorn who swept into the Mayor's Office. I will confess there was a second during his acceptance speech when I feared Buckhorn — unable to contain himself — was going to utter: "And so my fellow Tampanians: ask not what Tampa can do for you …" But maybe, at long last, Buckhorn simply found his own political voice.

Who knows what kind of mayor Bob Buckhorn will be? But it is probably not unreasonable to suspect that this is a politician who has faced too many setbacks and waited too long to realize his ambitions to knowingly botch things up.

We probably can safely assume invading Cuba is out of the question.

To him, 'politician' isn't a dirty word 03/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 24, 2011 8:26pm]

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