The five candidates for Tampa mayor all offer experience and strong personalities, but one stands out for his energy and blend of experience and vision. Bob Buckhorn has matured into a thoughtful leader who combines the best traditions of the city's past with a firm grasp of how Tampa and the region should grow together. The city has evolved, and so have expectations for the area's most visible leader. Buckhorn is best prepared to deal with those complexities.
The city made great strides under Mayor Pam Iorio. Over the past eight years, crime dropped 61 percent; private industry invested more than $1 billion in the greater downtown; new parks and museums opened; and the city embarked on a long-delayed program to rebuild its aging infrastructure. Iorio also brought more professionalism to City Hall. She hired new blood, made the bureaucracy more responsive and raised ethical standards for city workers. The next mayor needs to build on this foundation if the city hopes to weather this lagging economy and emerge as more competitive and vibrant.
Buckhorn, 52, graduated from Penn State University and came to Tampa in 1982. After a brief stint as a lobbyist for the Greater Tampa Builders Association, he organized Sandy Freedman's successful mayoral campaign and served as a special assistant during her two terms. As a young aide, Buckhorn coordinated the local effort to save Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base from closure. He won a citywide seat on City Council in 1995, and over two terms earned a reputation as a strong advocate for neighborhoods, fiscal responsibility, ethics and open government.
Buckhorn stands above the rest of the candidates for mayor in grasping the opportunities and challenges to diversifying the area economy. His proposal to create technology clusters across Tampa Bay to capitalize on new markets in the life sciences and defense-related fields is not particularly new. But Buckhorn has a strategy for bringing together land, people and capital. He understands that competing today requires Tampa Bay communities to work together to leverage their full range of assets, from transit systems and work force to ports, airports and universities.
As mayor, Buckhorn would thoughtfully streamline regulation. He would consolidate all permitting under a one-stop office and draw on the business community for ideas on reducing bureaucracy. Unlike his main rivals, though, Buckhorn is not throwing open the gates to developers but promoting more livable urban development patterns by better marrying shops and other retail in residential neighborhoods. He would commission an overdue master plan for connecting downtown, the channel district and Ybor City with the historic neighborhoods to the north. And Buckhorn has creative strategies in these tight economic times for continuing his commitment to parks and affordable housing.
Buckhorn has matured since his years on the City Council. He has rounded out his considerable political skills with a broader, more thoughtful approach to public policy. On the City Council, he made headlines by pushing a crackdown on strip clubs, prostitution and vagrancy. That cast him as a moralizing politician pandering for votes. Buckhorn effectively deals with that old one-dimensional image with self-deprecating good humor. He acknowledges he spent too much time on those issues and learned from the experience.
The biggest personality in the race remains former Mayor Dick Greco, who is seeking a fifth term. The 77-year-old Tampa native has had a large hand over several decades in transforming Tampa into a modern city. He redeveloped Ybor City and the channel district, brought new life and jobs downtown, preserved historic landmarks and beefed up fire and police. Greco also was a driving force behind the 1996 sales tax that has proved to be crucial to providing schools, public safety and other essential public works projects.
In this campaign, Greco has yet to draw a clear connection between his achievements of the past and the challenges of the future. His pitch that the skills that made him effective in previous eras will translate just as well in this century has not been entirely convincing. And his unwillingness to acknowledge he would have done anything differently in all those years as mayor is disappointing.
Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik has raised the intellectual level of this race. His willingness to pursue big ideas — from a local bid for the Olympic Games to rail and massive redevelopment plans for downtown and West Tampa — is inspiring. But Turanchik, 55, can fail to follow through, and there are concerns about whether he can muster as much enthusiasm for managing the day-to-day operation of the city.
Tampa City Council chairman Tom Scott has been a strong voice for the poor, black neighborhoods in his East Tampa district. His personal story is compelling, and his commitment to his constituents is admirable. But the 57-year-old pastor has not shown a real command of the larger issues.
Former County Commissioner Rose Ferlita has not articulated any clear vision or reason for running. The 65-year-old pharmacist is content to repeat broad themes without offering specifics, and her temperament raises questions about her ability to build consensus as mayor.
Beyond all the talk about visions and broad agendas, mayors spend much of their time grinding it out and ensuring the city's basic services are being delivered. They also must respond to crises outside their control. Shootings, natural disasters, the recession — all of these have required area mayors in recent years to step forward under pressure and provide clear, thoughtful leadership. Buckhorn has grown over his 30 years in Tampa into a sensible, fair and level-headed leader who can handle what comes his way. His discipline, sound judgment and work ethic distinguish him in this accomplished field, and they prime him to be an effective leader for the city and the region.
In Tampa's March 1 election, the Times recommends Bob Buckhorn for mayor.