1. Florida Politics

Will Bob Buckhorn run for Florida governor? Doubts growing

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, 58, appears to be undecided.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, 58, appears to be undecided.
Published Feb. 16, 2017

Which of the following Democrats does not appear poised to run for Florida governor?

A) Former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, who addressed Polk County Democratic activists Saturday, is paying for online ads about her potential run for governor, and Wednesday blasted Gov. Rick Scott on Twitter over his administration losing a lawsuit about water use.

B) Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who on Wednesday held a series of meetings with Democratic activists in Jacksonville, hailed Jacksonville's new human rights ordinance on Twitter and on Monday had lunch with the head of the influential SEIU union.

C) Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who has already paid for online ads featuring videos produced by his campaign consultant and, like Gillum and Graham, is actively interviewing people to work on his campaign.

D) Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who appeared with Gov. Scott in Tampa and Tallahassee on Monday and Tuesday to stand united in opposition to lawmakers wanting to cut state funding for economic development incentives, and on Wednesday mused to a reporter that running for governor would mean having to spend time away from his daughter before she heads to college in two years.

If you answered D, Mayor Buckhorn would not disagree with your perception.

"I've got to figure out if it's something I want," Buckhorn, 58, told the Tampa Bay Times. "If I don't want to be the governor as much as I wanted to be mayor, I'm not going to run."

Close friends believe Buckhorn genuinely has not made up his mind. As a popular, high-profile mayor in Florida's biggest media market, he has more flexibility than other would-be candidates in deciding when to seriously start building a statewide campaign.

"In doing my job every day, I have a pulpit and a profile that no one else in this race has," Buckhorn said. "Some of the others in this race don't even have a job."

The clock is ticking fast.

At least four Democrats — Gillum, Graham, Levine and political newcomer Chris King of Winter Park — are actively building campaigns and widely expected to formally announce within the next few months.

A fifth, personal injury lawyer John Morgan of TV ad and medical marijuana campaign fame, also is considering running. Morgan has the vast wealth and name recognition to be able to wait until 2018 to decide.

The widespread sense of Democratic operatives and donors across the state is that Buckhorn a year or two ago acted much more like a probable gubernatorial candidate than he does today. He has about $110,000 in a political action committee for which he hasn't raised a penny in more than a year, he has not been speaking to Democratic groups outside Tampa Bay or visiting with key South Florida fundraisers for months.

"Of the six people who are talked about the most, he is doing the least to get prepared and get ready to run," said Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant in Tallahassee who backs Graham. "Six months ago, I would have been surprised if he didn't run. Today, I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't — but I also wouldn't be surprised if he did."

Buckhorn has done little to build buzz among the donors and activists who pay close attention long before most Floridians. The mayor is term-limited in 2019.

The Times conducted a Florida Insider Poll this week, asking veterans of Florida politics — campaign consultants, fundraisers, lobbyists, activists, academics — who would be the strongest Democratic nominee for governor in 2018. Thirty-six percent said Morgan, 33 percent said Graham, 18 percent said Buckhorn, less than 6 percent said Levine, and less than 5 percent said Gillum.

"I don't know whether he will run or not — I'm betting he doesn't as yet either," said Beth Leytham, a Tampa political consultant and close Buckhorn ally. "That said, Bob Buckhorn is not to be underestimated. He is a strategic thinker, very politically astute, and I would absolutely not count him out. He is a centrist — always has been — and he will play well regardless of party affiliation, particularly to independents."

That centrist, bipartisan image could be tricky for Buckhorn in a Democratic primary. At least for now, his party's liberal base is more fired up than it has been in years, and many activists well remember how Buckhorn shunned Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist in 2014 and supported Republican Pam Bondi for attorney general.

His fundraising base in Tampa Bay has always included many Republican business people, who may not be as interested in helping him in a partisan race for governor. That's especially true with several other Tampa Bay Republicans thinking of running as well: state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater; Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes; and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam of Bartow.

Many Democrats expect Donald Trump's unpopularity to be a big help in 2018, but Buckhorn noted that's entirely uncertain at this point.

"For anybody planning for an '18 governor's race, you can't use the same metrics and barometers that were used in '10 and '14," he said. "The rules as of November changed completely, the conventional wisdom is out."

Buckhorn long has been his own top political adviser, but he has his media consultant, Dane Strother, and longtime pollster, Keith Frederick, who would be ready to go.

But he is thinking about his family. His oldest daughter is a high school sophomore, and a statewide campaign would mean a lot of time away from her. "I'm basically going to have two years with her before she goes away," he said.

If his wife and daughters are on board, the real question is Buckhorn's gut.

"Within the next month or two," he said. "If I'm going to do it, I've got to get moving."

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.