No challengers in sight, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn launches his re-election campaign

Published Sep. 12, 2014

TAMPA — Saying he has "the only job I ever really wanted," Mayor Bob Buckhorn filed papers Friday to seek a second term in Tampa's municipal elections on March 3.

"There is a lot of momentum moving Tampa forward, and I want to finish the job I was hired to do," he said.

So far, Buckhorn is the only candidate in the race, and people who follow city politics say they aren't hearing of strong challengers getting ready to step forward. Candidates can get in the race until qualifying ends in mid-January.

"I can't imagine that anyone credible would even think about it," said former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who ran in 2011. "If the mayor has opposition, it would be only token."

Buckhorn, 56, was elected to a four-year term in 2011. He finished second in a five-candidate primary, then won nearly 63 percent of the vote in a runoff with former Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita.

As mayor, Buckhorn has focused on a handful of clear themes aimed at building and reinvigorating the city's urban core.

Early on, he appointed a committee of developers, architects, lawyers, engineers and others to study ways to streamline city land use regulations. Buckhorn later re-organized City Hall's staffers assigned to development review and neighborhood affairs.

And he has tried to steer development toward the Hillsborough River, which he wants to make the center of downtown, as opposed to its western edge.

Another big priority is making Tampa more appealing to young professionals — he uses the word "hip" a lot — by energizing downtown as a place to live. He often says he wants his daughters, Grace and Colleen, to grow up and choose to come home to Tampa, not leave for cities like Austin, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham.

To do that, he has cheered on a construction boom in downtown apartments and worked to animate civic spaces with amenities (food trucks, rental bikes and free Wi-Fi in downtown parks) and activities (a macaroni and cheese cookoff and dyeing the river green for St. Patrick's Day).

Asked about priorities for a second term, Buckhorn said he wants to continue what he's started and work on improving transit, and for him that includes light rail.

"That's the one missing factor that we don't have, that we've got to accomplish over the next 4½ years," he said.

He also would like to see the 65 million gallons a day of treated waste water — water that is "almost drinkable" — that is dumped into Tampa Bay get some additional treatment so that it would be pure enough to help recharge the aquifer or be sold for agricultural or other uses.

Relentlessly upbeat, Buckhorn promotes Tampa to anyone with a business, a microphone or a camera.

"I think we've got our swagger back," he said.

A Democrat, he welcomed the exposure brought by the Republican National Convention in 2012. He has joined economic development officials on trade missions to Panama (three times), Germany, Switzerland, Colombia, Brazil, Israel and India. In December, he and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman are scheduled to lead a similar mission to Chile.

Closer to home, Buckhorn told then-St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, "I'm not going to be the boyfriend in your divorce," but he is ready to talk to the Tampa Bay Rays, if given the chance.

When asked, he says the Rays need to stay in the Tampa Bay area and thinks that if they leave St. Petersburg, then downtown Tampa would be an ideal new home, so officials in Hillsborough should be ready if St. Petersburg agrees to let the team look here.

Meanwhile, he waits.

"They've got to figure that out themselves," he said. "We'll react accordingly."

'I only need four votes'

But not everything has been easy. Buckhorn's relations with the City Council occasionally have been prickly.

One low point came in 2012.

The council had agreed to spend $2 million on surveillance cameras for the GOP convention. Police walked the item onto the agenda just a day before the vote and said they needed an immediate decision. But the city attorney and police chief promised a leery council that it and the community could weigh in on the cameras' use after the convention.

Six months later, when the scheduled discussion took place, none of Buckhorn's top staff showed up. Even council members on the best of terms with the mayor were stunned and offended.

Buckhorn also had to work to build support for a favorite project, the proposed Residences at the Riverwalk apartment tower near the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

And he has gotten push-back from the council over repairing two city swimming pools closed for years. After council member Frank Reddick said he wouldn't support Buckhorn's budget if it didn't include funds to repair the Williams Park Pool, Buckhorn quipped, "I only need four votes." A week later, after criticism, he gave the green light to repair the pool.

While Buckhorn has a record of working across party lines, emphasizing common goals and sometimes winning over an old rival — strip club king Joe Redner last year said the mayor was doing "a hell of a job" — he also has a reputation for remembering people who oppose him. In an email to the mayor this summer, a local artist who was seeking Buckhorn's favorable recommendation wrote, "it's a known fact that people on your black list don't get far in this city."

La Gaceta's well-connected political column said Buckhorn had encouraged people to run against Yvonne Yolie Capin, who once said he needed to "step up" and show more leadership on issues related to homelessness. "We need a quarterback," she said, not "a cheerleader."

A challenger has filed to run against Capin, one who met with Buckhorn, who said he routinely has get-to-know-you chats with prospective candidates. Paul Erni and Buckhorn both say Erni decided on his own which seat to seek.

When a reporter asked Buckhorn if he was trying to get people to challenge Capin, he said, "No. Not particularly."

'A significant leg up'

Overall, however, Buckhorn has enjoyed good reviews.

In late 2012, Buckhorn's job performance was rated as average, good or excellent by 81 percent of respondents in a poll commissioned by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News.

This is not unprecedented. Tampa's strong mayor form of government gives incumbents lots of authority, a free hand to set their own agendas, the chance to build name recognition and, when the time comes, an edge at raising campaign contributions.

The results are clear: Three of Tampa's last four mayors won re-election with 71 to 80 percent of the vote. The fourth, Dick Greco, was unopposed.

"Anybody in that position seems to have a significant leg up," said Scott Paine, an associate professor of communication and government at the University of Tampa who served with Buckhorn on the City Council during the 1990s.

"The mayor gets four years (of attention), good, bad and indifferent, but most of that publicity will produce an overall positive perception, because people know about the mayor," he said. "The candidate calling a press conference doesn't always get the attention. The mayor calling a press conference does."

'If I don't do my job...'

A resident of Davis Islands, Buckhorn is married to Dr. Catherine Lynch Buckhorn, the associate vice president for women's health and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at USF Health.

Buckhorn graduated from Penn State in 1980 and moved to Tampa in 1982 after a diagnosis of a rare degenerative disease in his right cornea — a misdiagnosis later confirmed by private doctors, he says — caused him to be washed out of the Navy's fighter pilot training program in Pensacola.

He arrived in Tampa, where a fraternity brother lived, in a 1966 Dodge Dart. He initially sold copiers for Toshiba, then butter for Land 'O Lakes, eventually becoming a lobbyist for the Builders Association of Greater Tampa.

Politically, he became active in politics, initially volunteering for Sen. John Glenn's presidential campaign, later for Pam Iorio when she won a County Commission seat and for Sandy Freedman when she ran for mayor.

After Freedman won, Buckhorn went to work as her special assistant, serving from 1987 to 1995, when he was elected to the Tampa City Council, where he served two four-year terms.

Despite his big victory in 2011 and his strong position now, Buckhorn hasn't always prevailed at the ballot box. He lost in the primary for a state House seat in north Tampa in 1992, finished third out of five candidates for mayor in 2003 and lost to former pro wrestler Brian Blair in a 2004 County Commission race.

In preparing for this campaign, Buckhorn assembled the same team of political operatives he has worked with in the past, some for 25 years: pollster Keith Frederick, direct-mail specialist Jon Coley, television consultant Dane Strother, former aide Siobhan Harley and Tampa public relations consultant Beth Leytham. He sent out his first fundraising email a few hours after filing his paperwork.

Tampa's charter limits the mayor, who is paid $150,000 annually, to serving two consecutive terms.

Buckhorn has been mentioned as a candidate for higher office, including the governor's race in 2018. He doesn't exactly discourage such speculation, but says he has to focus on being mayor.

"I love the job that I have," he said on a recent rainy morning after cutting the ribbon at a new fire station in Port Tampa. "I'm going to do it for another four years. We'll figure out what happens after that, if anything at all. But I know one thing: If I don't do my job, there is no future."

Contact Richard Danielson or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times