Halfway thorough his first term, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has a solid record of following through on core campaign promises. He has helped bring more life to downtown, raised the city's profile and worked to unite the Tampa Bay region. As the economy continues to rebound, he is positioning the city to be a more attractive place to live and work. And he is using the full spotlight of the mayor's office to generate energy and optimism, causing civic and business leaders to rethink what's possible.
Buckhorn's come-from-behind victory in the crowded mayoral race in 2011 reflected his scrappy nature over three decades in Tampa politics and foreshadowed the fast pace he has applied to "the best damn job in the world." In 24 months, he has brought together the first-ever master plan for downtown, secured money to complete the Riverwalk, started new housing and park projects, found public uses for two shuttered historic properties and moved to rebuild the look and economics of an entire community on the banks of the Hillsborough River.
Buckhorn's transformation as a public official was as much on display last week at the mayor's annual state of the city address as his agenda for the next two years. A politician who cut his teeth as a City Hall aide and focused on neighborhood issues as a City Council member talked almost exclusively about the larger challenges facing the region. They ranged from building a modern transit system (including rail) and diversifying the job base to expanding the bay area's social and economic relationships with Latin America. His ability to make the connections between foreign trade and the region's ports, airports and universities has won him an audience with young people and business, a coming together of two groups vital to the future.
Buckhorn has not found his full voice on transportation, despite his calls for a rail system. He wants state authority for cities to go it alone in financing rail as a means to bypass antitax sentiment among suburban county voters. But that is a piecemeal approach that almost guarantees no improved service to the county, much less across the region. Buckhorn's bring-me-a-deal mentality also has caused him to lose sight at times of the larger public good in preserving open space along the downtown waterfront. His biggest problems occur when he reaches out to build support for a decision after the fact. His pragmatic streak and decency usually save the day.
Buckhorn has been a valuable cheerleader for the region. He has underscored repeatedly that Tampa should not compete with St. Petersburg and that Tampa Bay needs to compete against Miami, Austin, Charlotte and other places if it hopes to keep its best and brightest. Buckhorn has smartly managed the rhetoric around keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in the region, recognizing St. Petersburg's long-term commitment and stadium lease while signaling he is open to a stadium in Tampa if that's what it takes to keep Major League Baseball here. The 2012 Republican National Convention, a mammoth undertaking, came off with few hitches. Though the security was overkill, the police under the direction of Tampa police Chief Jane Castor treated protesters with restraint and respect, and on the national stage, the city and the region looked orderly and ably managed as a result.
The slow economic recovery during Buckhorn's first two years in office forced him to improvise. But this sense of can-do sent a message to the business community that this city government will be a reliable partner. And Buckhorn's pride in his city and willingness to jump on a plane has brought more outside investors in to take a look. Buckhorn is off to a good start, and his ethics and high standards reflect well on public service. In the second half of his term, he should continue to grow as a regional leader, spend wisely as the economy generates more tax revenue — and build broad-based support for his initiatives on the front end instead of moving so fast that he has to mend fences afterward.