Observe that Bob Buckhorn is settling in nicely as Tampa's mayor, and political insiders are likely to respond with a wisecrack: No wonder, he's been practicing for 25 years. But that's not a fair measure of how the former mayoral aide and City Council member has spent his first six months in office.
Buckhorn stopped by the Times editorial board last week excited as a kid at Christmas. In a 60-minute conversation that he could have extended for hours, he ticked off a dizzying agenda, from improving the economic climate and remaking parks to preparing for the Republicans' 2012 convention.
None of it is particularly new. Buckhorn laid out his plans in almost painstaking detail during the five-way race in March. His focus on specifics set him apart in his blowout runoff victory over Rose Ferlita. What is remarkable, though, is how quickly Buckhorn has mobilized City Hall and taken control of his agenda.
His institutional knowledge clearly has helped. Buckhorn spent 16 years at City Hall, and though he left in 2003, it's fair to wonder, given his contacts, if he ever turned in his keys. He also can (and does) frequently thank Pam Iorio, his predecessor. She cut the city payroll as the recession took hold, invested in the basics and left Buckhorn with $100 million in cash reserves. That allowed the new mayor to start off on the right foot with the unions, who aren't facing layoffs or pay cuts. Buckhorn also is continuing several of Iorio's initiatives, including expanding the Riverwalk north of the performing arts center. And Iorio left her successor with enough in the bank to boost spending on the neighborhoods even beyond her record $10 million a year.
The transition between Iorio and Buckhorn also marked the first time in a quarter century that an incoming administration was largely in synch with the one it replaced. Buckhorn kept the staff Iorio assembled and even promoted her troubleshooter, Santiago Corrada, to be his chief of staff. That continuity has boosted morale while freeing Buckhorn to leave his desk and raise the city's profile across the region and nationally. He has met with other U.S. mayors to brainstorm on a host of urban issues, and he is not shy about stealing what works in other places to improve life here.
Buckhorn has made some progress, albeit small, on the jobs front. He has announced several relocations, and he is working with the University of South Florida on commercializing research and high-tech opportunities. He formed a panel of developers to recommend how Tampa could fast-track its regulatory process. Over the coming year, Buckhorn hopes to craft a redevelopment plan for the historic and once-lively neighborhoods on the northern slopes of downtown. Like other mayors, he is biding his time in this stalled economy, proposing small-bore ventures with parks and historic buildings that could make Tampa a more attractive place.
Six months offers no real glimpse beyond how the new guy is adapting to the job. Buckhorn clearly relishes the command, the attention and the perks, from the bodyguard to the monster SUV. But he has matured beyond his days fanning social issues as a council member, and even since his anything-goes political style of the recent past.
Buckhorn was all but written off after he lost the mayor's race to Iorio in 2003 and another race soon after for the County Commission. Though he slipped into previous form this summer in a standoff with the council over a pool, Buckhorn is not as impulsive or openly eager to land a punch. He has set the right middle course with the Tampa Bay Rays, making it clear the city of St. Petersburg has legitimate financial interests in keeping the team while underscoring Tampa's interest in retaining baseball in the region.
Buckhorn's earlier loss in a mayor's race better prepared him this time around. His talk about believing in "second acts" applies to cities as much as politicians in this tough economic recovery. He has inherited stable finances at City Hall, a talented executive team and an ethical culture that should give confidence to the business community. Buckhorn also has firmly planted his feet. His old adversary and new friend, former Mayor Dick Greco, once gave him wonderful advice: Quit talking about everything that's wrong.
Buckhorn is a long way from establishing a record, much less a legacy. But he's had a solid start in his new role.
John Hill is a member of the Times editorial board.