Bob Buckhorn sat down amid the packing boxes and plaques to talk about the best and worst of being the mayor of Tampa, from chicken dinners to mayoral swagger to why he has that big love for downtown. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Best accomplishment as mayor?
Completion of the Riverwalk, if you’re talking about brick-and-mortar projects. The completion really began the transformation of our urban core because it opened up the waterfront to people who had written it off, who refused to come downtown or never really understood what an asset that waterfront was. You’re now seeing hundreds of millions of dollars of private money being invested around the river. The river has become the destination.
But it was the Riverwalk that connected all the dots and gave people access to the waterfront, which is our community’s best asset from an urban planning perspective. And the thing that most cities would die for.
Other than winning in 2011? When we cut the ribbon on the Riverwalk. It had been six mayors and almost 40 years. I knew how hard we worked to get the TIGER grant, how much political capital we had invested in the Obama administration and those relationships and how many trips to Washington I’d made to try and convince folks that this was an unusual but valid request.
It wasn’t always sunny for you in Tampa politics. (Buckhorn finished third in the 2003 mayor’s race and lost a 2004 county commission race to a former wrestler.) You got knocked down a couple times.
I got knocked down a lot. I arrived in Tampa having been selected for Navy flight school, wanting nothing else other than to fly jets for the Navy off of aircraft carriers. And to go down to the Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola and be diagnosed as having a degeneration of one of your corneas and discharged ... my world was turned upside down at age 23.
I think my life story was perfect for where Tampa found itself in 2011. Are you going to stay on the mat? Are you going to get back into the fight? The recession had put us on the mat and we were out cold.
If I had led a charmed life and never had to dig deep into who I was to see what I was made of, I may not have been the right choice at the right time. But I think it was those experiences that sort of made me perfect for this job at the point Tampa found itself.
“Swagger,” a nickname of which you are proud, could connote confidence or arrogance, depending. Is this something you did deliberately?
It very much was intentional.
That mentality, that sort of warrior ethos, turned out to be the right fit for Tampa at that particular moment.
So, relentlessly driving a narrative, relentlessly trying to instill in people that, yeah, these are dark times, and yeah, this is tough, and, yeah, we've been hit hard, but there's better days ahead. And if we stick together and we do what I'm talking about, there will be light at the end of the tunnel.
And people hear it enough times, it becomes part of their DNA and they start to believe.
I think the people who live here became optimistic and ambitious and wouldn't settle for mediocrity because we now believe that we can win. So I've been part coach, part cheerleader, always driving, never satisfied with where we are right now. And always pushing for what we could be.
What didn’t you get done?
Moving the needle further on transportation. Trying to find vehicles by which some of our tougher neighborhoods could enjoy more of the prosperity.
We had to almost start at the beginning and deal with the guns and the gangs and the violence and the housing stock that was deteriorating before we could start making progress.
So whether it was Sulphur Springs or East Tampa, you had to stabilize the neighborhoods before you could start to see investment. You had to make the neighborhoods safe.
We started with Sulphur Springs and really went in hard there along with a lot of our nonprofit partners. I think we've made a tangible difference. But it's three and four generations in the making and I'm not going to fix it in eight years.
I think we made progress, but I'm never satisfied and would like to have done more. And I knew that going in.
There’s Buckhorn beer, a Buckhorn salad. You have a mayoral driver. Your voice greets passengers at Tampa International Airport. What perk will you miss?
The parking. The ability to pretty much park wherever I needed to.
You get a do-over.
Just like I don't dwell on my successes, I surely don't dwell on my failures. I've never had to veto anything. So it's not like we haven't been able to accomplish pretty much everything that we set out to do.
I'm trying to think of any project that we started out on that either collapsed or just never got done.
We know you’ll miss pretty much everything. Name something you won’t.
One more rubber chicken dinner. I will be happy if I never ever see chicken and peas again, because I've eaten it more ways than you can shake a stick at, sometimes seven days in a row.
One of my first things when I leave here is to get back in shape.
You're up at the crack of dawn, you don't get home til late, you eat bad food. Some would say it's a stressful environment, running and gunning all the time. You don't get to exercise. You're working pretty much seven days a week.
Once I step out of the bubble, I will probably realize the effect that stress has on the body, even though I don't think this job does stress me because I love it so much.
You meet a stranger on a plane who wants to know about Tampa. How would you tell it?
It's one of the most exciting cities in America. It has a diversity that honors diversity as a strength, that it doesn't matter to us where you came from, how you got here, the language you speak, who you love, what God you worship.
I would tell them it's an authentic place. It was settled by immigrants. It's working-class people. It is a city that cares about each other, a city on the verge of becoming, south of Atlanta, the economic engine that drives the southeast United States.
And that you can make a great living in a place that you're going to want to raise your kids. And the people here are good people.
I would tell them about the food.
You were criticized for being too close for some of your fellow Democrats’ tastes to Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, who is from Tampa. Was it the right thing to do?
Certainly in the case of the governor. My relationship with Pam is a personal relationship. It goes back 25 years.
And I couldn't care less what party the governor belongs to. He proved to be, I think because of that relationship, a great supporter of the city.
Some of the things he was helpful in us attaining were the expansion of the airport, the expansion of the port, the decision to move the medical school from the main campus into downtown Tampa. None of those things would have happened had I not had a relationship with Gov. Scott.
I'm not the Democratic mayor of the city, I'm the mayor. For those partisan folks that choose to retreat to their corners on every issue, I don't have the luxury of doing that.
I don't care whether you're Democrat, Republican or vegan, if you're going to do something that is going to benefit the people that I represent and my city, I'm going to work with you.
I think what America is crying out for, candidly, is a little less partisanship and a little more pragmatism. So for those that didn't like the fact that I was capable of working with a Republican governor, too bad. We got stuff done. And they are now the beneficiary of that.
Critics would say that in your zeal for the city, you concentrated on downtown and surrounding neighborhoods at the expense of other communities.
It's not true. Spending in the neighborhoods increased two or three times over the previous administration. We were visible, we were investing, we were repairing infrastructure, we were adding parks. Nobody has added more open space and park land than I have. Some locations are in tough, tough neighborhoods.
I also recognize that downtown is sexy, downtown is big, it’s bold. It drives a lot of headlines. I get why people would say that. But I would remind them that this Renaissance didn’t happen by happenstance. This was a very calculated, concerted, thought-out plan that began with the recognition that if we were ever going to be able to compete economically, we had to find a way to stop the brain drain leaving this city and find a way to build a city that millennials wanted to come home to.
Because if you could attract them, you could attract the jobs and companies. In order to do that, I had to build an urban core that would compete with any urban core in America. Because you're competing for intellectual capital, for those bright young people who can live anywhere in the world.
You had to have a downtown that worked, that was open 18 hours a day, that was active, that was vibrant, where people could live, work and play. That was exactly what we set out to do eight years ago and that's exactly what we've done. Our downtown now is one of the most vibrant, hip places in the country.
I knew without that occurring, we were going to be relegated to a third-tier city dependent upon service-level jobs forever. We would not recover.
So, yeah, I spent a lot of time focused on downtown. But there's a reason, and I think the results show it was the right decision.
Do you really have an enemies list?
(He laughs.) No. I'm Irish, I have a long memory, but no, I do not have an enemies list.
Some brash Buckhornian quotes: You told Tampa police officers on the hunt for a serial killer in Seminole Heights to bring you his head. You joked about aiming a machine gun at journalists. You blew off a city council threat to reject your budget by saying you only needed four votes. Would you change any of those?
No, I wouldn't. It's part of who I am and I'm not going to back down from a fight.
I knew exactly what I was saying when I said it.
The machine gun’s a little bit different. I had had fun with it with the cameramen at these (military) events for years, razzing them and them razzing me. It was a totally innocuous, harmless comment they found humorous. What happened was in the context of what Trump had been saying about the media. It became something other than what it was. It was easy to take it out of context if you didn’t know the environment that I was in and who I was talking to.
For eight years you got to play with the faux pirates, the powerful men of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla who invade the city and demand the key. Maybe no other mayor enjoyed the festivities as much. As a civilian, will you join the Krewe? Have you made moves to already?
I haven’t. I have said that next year I will be part of the problem, not part of the solution. I’m sure I will have plenty of time to think about it.
The Krewe has grown and listened over the years. It's a much more diverse parade that reflects every part of Tampa. We're in a much better place than we were 25 years ago. It's a Tampa thing, and it's a lot of fun. The Krewe does great work.
So, you know, we'll see.
Will your wife, Dr. Cathy Lynch, miss you being mayor?
She doesn't need me to be successful. She's like me — she loves going to work every day.
Being married to the mayor has had its benefits, but she'll be the same person when I leave office that she was when I was sworn in and when I married her.
She's a rock star in her own right.
Your daughters, Grace and Colleen?
They've been able to do some cool stuff and meet some really interesting people — going to the White House for the Christmas parties, meeting presidents, being on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton.
I hope when they're older that will compensate for me being gone a lot.
They can do without the people coming up to me all the time and the pictures. They hate to go to Publix with me because it takes so long. But I think they secretly take pride in it.
You toyed with running for governor. Could you have won?
I think I could have been competitive in the general election. The challenge would have been winning the primary.
I think the party has moved so far to the left that we nominate candidates that reflect that perspective.
So I am troubled by the fact that there is very little room in today's debate for centrists on either side, Republican or Democrat.
We saw a very able, competent Adam Putnam get knocked out of a Republican primary. And we saw an equally able and competent centrist candidate like Gwen Graham get knocked out in a Democratic primary. That's not to negate the great campaign that Andrew Gillum ran.
I think the challenge for me would have been in winning the primary because people may look at me as too centrist, too pro-business, for their needs.
I don't think it serves the state very well, and I certainly don't think it serves the country well, but that's where this political process has found itself.
So to the extent that I am happy about leaving politics right now, this may be a good time for me to do it. Because it's tough to find a home for guys like me. Even though we can win.
The question the Democrats are going to have to answer in 2020 is: Do you want to be right, or do you want to win? Because you can't govern if you don't win. So if you're going to drag these candidates and make them check every litmus test box, you're going to lose again, because most Americans are not interested in checking boxes. They're interested in good governance.
And most Americans are a little center right, a little center left. But we are nominating in both parties people who are on the extremes. And that's unfortunate. The extremes aren't where most Americans live.
2020 is going to be really interesting.
How many times do you think you’ve joked to people that you have the power to cut off their water?
Probably, I don't know, 200 times. I've never done it.
You spent eight years pitching Tampa strengths: vibrant downtown, beautiful waterfront. What’s your city’s biggest weakness?
Transportation. Far and away, it's our Achilles’ heel.
I leave office taking great solace in the fact that voters did what they did. (In November Hillsborough County approved a one-cent sales tax for transportation.) That gives us a blueprint for the next 20 to 30 years.
I never had the luxury of having a dedicated revenue source that I could deploy to do things as simple as fixing potholes, let alone massive projects that required debt and federal partnership. The next mayor is going to have that ability.
It is tradition to name something after a mayor once he or she leaves office. If you got to pick, what would be named for you?
Oh, I don't know.
You haven’t thought about that?
I really haven't.
If they put on my tombstone that I was a city builder, that's plenty for me. That's what I love to do. That's what I get up every day to do and it happens to be in the city that I love and I live in.
Spill: What’s next for you?
I can honestly say I don't know. Although now that I have a daughter at an out-of-state school, I'm going to have to start thinking about it.
If I have to leave here, I'm going to use it to sort of decompress and re-calibrate.
I want to travel. I want to spend time with my daughter getting her packed up and ready to go to school.
One of the reasons I haven't given it a lot of thought is because I've loved what I've been doing and, candidly, was hopeful that it would never end. You know, that I'd die here at my desk.
I'm going to have to find, like an athlete playing his last game, something that will fill that void, something that gives me a reason to get up every day and something that I'm passionate about doing. And if I'm able to make money doing it, that's great, but I'm not someone who's driven by money.
This for me was everything I ever worked for, everything I ever trained for. It was the pinnacle of everything I thought I would be. Now I just have to figure out how you fill the next 10 years of your working life with something that gives you as much joy.
I think it will be something that comes to me unexpectedly.
I'm not going to be the guy hanging around. I want to give Jane (Castor) the room she needs to be successful. If she needs me, I'm going to be a phone call away. But if not, that's okay, too.
I knew when I made the decision not to run for governor, potentially I was closing the window on my public life. And I'm okay with that. I think.
I think you just answered the ‘will you run for office again’ question.
Doubtful. But I'm not ever going to say never.
It’s tradition for the exiting mayor to leave a note for the new one. What did Pam Iorio say in her note to you?
This is going to be the best job that you've ever had and you're going to love it more than you know and that she would always be there for me.
That brotherhood and sisterhood of mayors — the challenges that you face whether you're the mayor of Chicago or the mayor of Pahokee — are all the same. It's just a question of scale.
This is the best job of American politics. Every mayor, particularly strong mayors, will tell you that. Even if they go on to be governors or in the U.S. Senate, they will tell you that the best job they ever had was as a mayor.
What will your note to Castor say?
I will tell her she’s been given an amazing gift, hopefully eight years of the best years of your life doing a job that you will love more than anything you’ve ever done. And that this gift is a city that is on the verge of something special.
And that it’s up to you to get us there.