Going into the election for Tampa mayor eight years ago, conventional wisdom didn’t give Bob Buckhorn a prayer.
He was a three-time loser, having failed in runs for the Legislature (1992), the mayor’s office (2003) and the Hillsborough County Commission (2004). By any standard political reckoning, the last defeat, to former professional wrestler Brian Blair, should have ended Buckhorn’s career in politics.
But he made that 2011 mayor’s race all about comebacks. At the time, the city was punch-drunk from the Great Recession. Property tax revenues — the lifeblood of City Hall’s finances — had dropped more than $44 million a year from their pre-crash peak. In response, outgoing Mayor Pam Iorio cut nearly 700 positions citywide and suspended raises one year to avoid further layoffs.
To get Tampa off its knees, a phrase that Buckhorn, 60, still seems to use three or four times a week, he steered campaign debates, policy discussions and decisions to one question: How will this make young professionals want to live here?
Attract millennials and you build talent, he said. Talent attracts business. New business grows the economy. Prosperity lets you do everything else. So the city completed the Riverwalk and invested tens of millions of dollars in parks and amenities. Meanwhile, the number of apartments and condominiums around downtown tripled, with hundreds more in the pipeline.
Tampa’s comeback was Buckhorn’s story, and he stuck to it: "I beat that message home for eight years."
The thing is, it’s a narrative that has worked as well for Bob Buckhorn as it did for Tampa. In eight years, the city has issued building permits for more than $14 billion worth of construction projects, and its waterfront has come to life. Along the way, Buckhorn surfed a wave of growth in style, going from the wanna-be candidate who couldn’t close the deal to the two-term mayor who closed many.
“The city takes on the personality of the mayor, particularly during crisis situations,” says Buckhorn, who will leave office on Wednesday because of term limits. He will be succeeded by former Police Chief Jane Castor, whose candidacy he supported.
Buckhorn’s first big challenge was hosting the Republican National Convention in 2012. Organizers did not want a repeat of the 2008 GOP convention, when police in St. Paul, Minn. arrested 800 people amid street violence that smashed plate-glass windows and rained debris from an overpass onto a busload of delegates.
Planning for Tampa’s convention began well before Buckhorn became mayor, but he supported a security presence that included 4,000 law enforcement officers and miles of steel and concrete barriers. Video of chaos in St. Paul did years of damage to that city’s reputation, he recalls, and “I was not going to let anarchists come to Tampa and wreck our community.”
“If it meant shutting this city down,” he says, “I was going to do it.”
In the end, Tropical Storm Isaac kept 16 busloads of protesters away from Tampa. Police stayed calm and flexible, even driving leftover boxed lunches to the Romneyville protest camp. Just two people were arrested, fewer than at a typical Tampa Bay Buccaneers home game.
Buckhorn was relieved and elated. A few weeks later, the first news story appeared quoting him saying that Tampa “got its swagger back.”
It wouldn't be the last. The word came to define Buckhorn and his view of the city: Confident and bold. A place that welcomed everyone. A place that, as he often said, didn’t ask permission to try something big.
*For poverty statistics, 2017 is most recent year available. The peak poverty rate during the period was 22 percent in 2014. **For downtown residency statistics, 2018 is the most recent year available. ***Of taxable value. Sources: City of Tampa, U.S. Census, Tampa Downtown Partnership.
“Bob has been relentless with his messaging,” Tampa Bay Lightning owner and Water Street Tampa developer Jeff Vinik says. “Nonstop. Pro-active. Pro-Tampa. He is everywhere. ... Bob’s energy and excitement has been contagious. It has helped put this tailwind behind our growth.”
At the same time, Buckhorn updated the city’s development regulations and permit system, fleshed out a comprehensive redevelopment plan for the urban core and lobbied successfully for a federal grant to complete the Riverwalk. He had a knack for taking vacant city properties (an old water works pump house, the abandoned federal courthouse) and getting developers to put them to new uses (a riverfront restaurant, a boutique hotel). He expanded public WiFi, hosted food truck rallies, dyed the Hillsborough River green for St. Patrick’s Day and launched new events like the Mayor’s Mac & Cheese Throwdown.
A lot of that was only possible because Buckhorn worked with the City Council in the early years to close a $30 million budget shortfall, said Lisa Montelione, who served on the council from 2011 to 2016.
"If that hadn't happened, the rest of the development, the progress, the excitement about Tampa would have (been) a much different story," she said. "Being able to put the city on solid footing really set the tone and the course."
One area where Buckhorn didn’t go all-in was the Tampa Bay Rays. From the 2011 campaign on, Buckhorn hoped the Rays would remain in the bay area and thought downtown Tampa would be a great landing spot. But he also let Hillsborough County officials take the lead and said the team had to put serious money into any new stadium.
"You can't fall in love with these deals," he said, "because ultimately you have to make the numbers work."
The night in 2011 that Buckhorn's focused campaign won him the mayor's race, his former martial arts instructor foreshadowed the years to come with an observation about Buckhorn's kick-boxing.
Even against bigger or stronger fighters, instructor David Weinstein said, “Bob is the kind of guy who never took a backward step.”
But Buckhorn’s enthusiasm and brash confidence has a flip side. Critics say he can be arrogant and imperious, dismissive and bullying.
"It’s what a brutal dictator would do in a third-world country," said incoming City Council member Bill Carlson, a longtime critic who nonetheless gives the mayor credit for building enthusiasm and getting residents to believe in their hometown.
Outgoing City Council member Mike Suarez says Buckhorn did a good job maintaining relationships in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., that kept state and federal funds flowing, but sometimes the mayor's temper got in the way of his goals.
"For every two steps forward, sometimes he would take two steps back in terms of getting angry instead of just ignoring (his critics)," Suarez said. And if those critics happened to be on the City Council "he would freeze you out in terms of information that you needed or wanted.
"If he was mad at us, all of a sudden there was a ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting at 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning," right in the middle of the council's weekly meeting, Suarez said. "We all noticed that."
What Buckhorn rarely did was apologize.
“I may have sort of rephrased things that I said,” he says.
The first time he did that came about six months after he took office. Buckhorn was leery about the cost of re-opening city pools that were in poor repair and had been closed for years. Repairs were difficult and expensive, he said, and staffing pools would require hiring a lot of new employees.
When City Council member Frank Reddick said he wouldn’t vote for Buckhorn’s budget unless it included funds for the Williams Park Pool, which is in Reddick’s predominantly black district, Buckhorn quipped, “I only need four votes.”
A week later, after the slight provoked strong criticism, he okayed the repairs, saying the money had been in the budget, but he needed more detail on the cost of the fix. Two years later when the pool opened, he gave Reddick credit for “keeping pressure on me” to do the job.
In 2015, a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that police ticketed more bicyclists than Florida’s other four largest cities combined, and that 79 percent of cyclists who received tickets were black. At first, Buckhorn merely said Chief Castor’s explanations spoke for themselves.
Later, the city asked the U.S. Justice Department to review the policy. The feds concluded that the tickets started out as an attempt to fight crime, but they didn’t work or promote safety. What they did do, the study concluded, was make black residents feel harassed.
In response, Buckhorn said “corrective action” was in order. But when he was asked if the city’s healing ought to begin with an apology from City Hall, he said no.
“I am never going to apologize for being aggressive in the crime fight,” he said. “It’s just not going to happen.”
The fact that the mayor stuck by the police, a core source of his political support, should come as no surprise. Buckhorn remembers the loneliness of suffering a political setback, and he does not turn away from allies caught up in controversy.
For example: In 2014, longtime Tampa civil rights leader Delano Stewart used the “n-word” during a public meeting in his capacity as the city’s legal adviser to the Civil Service Board. It was the kind of remark that has gotten city employees fired under the city’s anti-discrimination policy, but Buckhorn, defending Stewart as a good friend and an iconic African-American leader, said context matters. He noted that Stewart was quoting an NFL player who used the slur, so “does that change things? I don’t know.”
Even when Buckhorn did apologize, it didn't always stick.
In 2017, Buckhorn joked at a military conference about how much he enjoyed firing blanks from a .50-caliber machine gun during a naval warfare demonstration. Journalists, he said, cried “like little girls” when he pointed the muzzle their way.
“Great payback,” he cracked.
It was a line Buckhorn had used many times before, but his audience that day included not just local reporters who were in on the joke but war correspondents who had been shot at in combat. They took to social media to say that the joke was appalling, and the story exploded. The sister of the first journalist killed in the Iraq war in 2003 said the joke was “reprehensible” and “the behavior of a school yard bully.”
Buckhorn issued an apology through an aide.
But revisiting the fiasco this month, he didn’t sound a bit sorry.
“Total bulls---,” he said, describing what he said was joshing with the locals, especially TV video journalists. “I didn’t think I was wrong. What I said, I think, was taken totally out of context by people who were largely not there. … It was me just busting their chops.”
For all of his Celtic pugnacity — Braveheart is his favorite movie — Buckhorn doesn’t warm to every possible fight.
He was elected in what is officially a nonpartisan contest, but Buckhorn is a lifelong Democrat. Still, he eagerly worked with former Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other Republicans if he thought it would accomplish something for his city.
So while he criticized Scott for prohibiting the city from banning permitted concealed weapons inside the security zone at the 2012 Republican National Convention, he often appeared on stage with the governor to celebrate corporate relocations and expansions.
He also lobbied Scott and the GOP-led Legislature to support expansions at Tampa International Airport and Port Tampa Bay and to appropriate funds for a new medical school at Water Street Tampa, the $3 billion development backed by Jeff Vinik and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
“I needed a partner in the governor’s office that was going to help me get things done for my community,” Buckhorn says. “I didn’t care if he was a vegan or a Republican.”
Buckhorn talks about taking his daughter Grace to college at Penn State, his alma mater, once he leaves office and going on a vacation to Ireland. He jokes that his next job will be driving for Uber, but "I think about it less than people think."
"I’m going to take some time off," he says, acknowledging that he's gotten some feelers for potential jobs both inside and outside of Tampa. "In order for me to move on, I’ve got to step out of the bubble. ... I don’t know that I’ll ever run for office again."
He will leave behind a downtown where the center of gravity has moved toward the Hillsborough River.
"I think he’s done a wonderful job building up downtown," City Council chairman Frank Reddick says. But he adds that Buckhorn paid less attention to East Tampa and West Tampa neighborhoods that still need more sidewalks, more streetlights and more economic development, so "there’s no legacy there for the mayor."
Buckhorn strongly disagrees. He points to his administration’s work to install 8,400 new streetlights citywide, to tear down vacant houses and build new ones in Sulphur Springs, to spend $6.3 million redeveloping Perry Harvey Sr. Park, to partner with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation on $1 million in improvements at Springhill Park, and to keep recreation centers open at night and on weekends through the “Stay and Play” program.
Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, where the city spent $35.5 million, is a project designed not only to deliver new recreation to West Tampa, but to attract entrepreneurs to redevelop what used to be the North Boulevard Homes public housing complex. The result should be tens of millions of dollars, if not more, in new investment, making Riverfront Park the city’s biggest project ever in West Tampa, he said.
Buckhorn’s impact on reducing Tampa’s chronic flooding could help a much broader swath of the city. The $251 million program started out costing property owners $45 per year for a medium-sized house, ramping up to nearly $90 a year over six years. Meanwhile, the improvements are spread out, incremental and not yet visible.
Buckhorn is not known for his patience, but at this point in his career, he has little choice.
“I’m not worried about how history judges me this year,” he said. “I’m worried about how they will judge me 20 years from now when they see the fruits of all of these investments."