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  1. Florida Politics

Democrats wince, but Buckhorn revels in his relationship with Scott

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn greets Florida Gov. Rick Scott before a March 2017 roundtable discussion with Tampa community leaders and business owners. [Times files (2017)]
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn greets Florida Gov. Rick Scott before a March 2017 roundtable discussion with Tampa community leaders and business owners. [Times files (2017)]
Published Jul. 7, 2018

TAMPA — It's an unlikely pairing, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Gov. Rick Scott.

But Buckhorn, a Democrat who stumped hard for Hillary Clinton, has forged a pragmatic alliance with Scott, a key Republican ally of President Donald Trump.

In recent weeks, Scott has sent a flurry of political presents Tampa's way — revealing a private company's interest in a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando, allocating $2.7 million for the city's fledgling street car system, and pushing personally to place an Ybor City census tract on the state's list for a federal tax break that may help pay for a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark.

Buckhorn isn't sending those gifts back. They're evidence of his political pragmatism in building a relationship with Scott, who entered office three months before the mayor in 2011.

"I think it's a good working relationship. We both came in together. We both have the same goals — economic development and job creation," Buckhorn said recently. "Ultimately, my job as the mayor is to work with everybody who is willing to work with me — Democratic, Republican or vegan."

Scott's office issued a written statement in response to a Tampa Bay Times inquiry.

"I have appreciated working with Mayor Bob Buckhorn and all of Tampa's elected leadership to take the bay area's economy to the next level," the statement reads. "By focusing on transportation, public safety and education, we've been able to find real solutions for families and deliver results."

Plenty of Democrats are skeptical of Scott's motives, including Hillsborough County Democratic Party chairwoman Ione Townsend.

They see Scott's largesse as a maneuver to cut the vote margins in November in a key Democratic stronghold. Scott is challenging Sen. Bill Nelson for his seat.

"That's probably the game plan," Townsend said. "Hillary Clinton took Hillsborough by 41,000 votes. For a Republican to be making some political investments in our county? I'm sure it's viewed by them as 'we'll reap some rewards down the road.' "

Scott's campaign fired back with a statement late Friday.

"Accusing this major win for Florida as a political ploy is typical for Bill Nelson's Democratic loyalists — they don't have a candidate with a record of accomplishments to run on, so they go negative," said Kerri Wyland, a Scott spokeswoman.

Darryl Paulson, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said Scott's motives may be partially political, but they involve more than just Tampa voters. Scott has a statewide constituency to satisfy.

"If he's looking to broaden his political base, this is one way to do it," Paulson said.

Scott can plausibly claim that a private operator building a high-speed train is something conservatives should embrace. Ditto for private investment flowing into a new Rays ballpark under a tax break created by President Trump.

Meanwhile, Buckhorn can walk away with tangible victories, including a windfall for the city's transportation network with three years of free street car rides.

"It's a win-win situation. Both of them can go back and say we've got some transportation needs being met in the city of Tampa," Paulson said.

Over the years, Buckhorn's tendency to refrain from campaigning in races featuring local Republicans such as Pam Bondi and Dana Young have rankled some Democrats, Townsend said.

"When I quizzed him about that while asking him to endorse their Democratic opponents, he always shied away, saying they have brought things to Tampa," she said.

As for Buckhorn's relationship with Scott?

"I'd say a lot of Democrats have a problem with that," she said.

Buckhorn is unapologetic.

"I remind them my job isn't to be the Democratic mayor of Tampa. It's to be the mayor of Tampa," Buckhorn said in a reference to his office's status as officially nonpartisan.

Across the bay, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has clashed with Scott. One flashpoint was in 2016 when Scott ordered state agencies to investigate the city's sewage crisis. Kriseman called it politically motivated.

But that was political opportunism that any GOP governor might have engaged in, said John Rodriguez, St. Petersburg's government affairs director.

"The mayor didn't take it personally," Rodriguez said. "He doesn't harbor any hard feelings about that."

Rodriguez did acknowledge Kriseman hasn't received the favors Buckhorn has.

Buckhorn stayed out of Scott's 2014 race for governor against challenger Charlie Crist. If the governor was hoping Buckhorn will remain on the sidelines as the governor challenges Nelson, he might be disappointed in a statement the mayor issued Friday.

"Bill Nelson has been a friend of mine for 25 years and I have supported him in every race he has ever been in, including this one," Buckhorn said. "Sen. Nelson has been a great friend to Tampa and a champion for our issues in Washington, D.C."

Even if the heat of the campaign melts the working Scott-Buckhorn alliance, Buckhorn is optimistic about the city's fortunes in his final months as mayor.

"For the city," he said, "things are really falling into place."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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