Tampa voters Tuesday sent two polar opposites to the runoff for mayor and cast aside the most familiar name. Rose Ferlita finished first on the strength of her name, campaign war chest and strategy of not saying anything specific. Bob Buckhorn finished second and edged former Mayor Dick Greco, advancing a vision and an agenda no one in the five-way race could match. Now Ferlita and Buckhorn will have to broaden their appeal in the dash to the March 22 runoff.
Buckhorn squeaked past Greco and finished only slightly shy of the better-financed Ferlita. The 52-year-old former mayoral aide and Tampa City Council member was the strongest on the stump throughout the campaign. He convinced voters that he has moved beyond his prior focus on morality issues and matured into a bigger thinker. Buckhorn showed a grasp of detail and an energy that married well to his argument that today's economy requires a new skill set at City Hall. He had a relevant message, and voters rewarded Buckhorn by advancing him to the runoff.
Ferlita was long considered a front-runner given her Tampa ties and political experience. The 65-year-old pharmacist is great one on one, having honed her people skills over generations by caring for families during some of their most despondent moments. She exuded the same nostalgia that the 77-year-old Greco, the only other Tampa native in the race, tried to sell in his bid for a fifth term in office. But Ferlita did better than the former mayor in painting herself as rooted in both the past and the present. Her years on the Tampa City Council and Hillsborough County Commission also gave her enough visibility for voters to picture her as mayor.
Ferlita, though, has yet to show command of the issues, even as she promised Tuesday night that the next three weeks will be about talking specifics. Several times in the campaign she winged it, calling into question how much she has thought through the scope of the job. She showed some sensitivity to the public mood by amplifying her story of having succeeded in business before entering politics. But she has not laid out a rationale for running. And Ferlita has shown little of the charisma that friends see in private.
Ferlita's challenge — now that voters have the luxury to focus on only two candidates, not five — is to demonstrate that she has an agenda. She and Buckhorn are not far apart in calling for more aggressive strategies to bring new jobs to Tampa. Buckhorn, though, can articulate exactly how he plans to do it. Tuesday's strong showing by Ed Turanchik, the long-shot former Hillsborough County commissioner-turned-developer who finished fourth, shows that voters are looking for a visionary leader who is not afraid to put forward ideas.
For Greco, it was a surprisingly abrupt end to another political comeback. He failed to tie his past accomplishments to a vision for the future. But he was as gracious in defeat Tuesday night as he has been throughout his public life.
Buckhorn should keep his campaign on the high road, and he was effusive in his praise of Greco, Turanchik and Tom Scott on Tuesday night as he reached out to their supporters. He has distinguished himself in this campaign by focusing on a vision and plan for moving Tampa and the region forward. His message has been unfailingly positive — and voters are responding to it. The newfound attention to his resurgent campaign should give Buckhorn every reason to keep sounding and acting mayoral.