Thanks but no thanks, Buckhorn says to bid for Democratic National Convention

A 2012 rule against corporate funds makes Tampa unwilling to bid for the convention.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn Mayor Bob Buckhorn says the invitation from the Democratic National Committee to bid for the 2016 convention is “flattering,” but if the party's rule against corporate support is still in place, he is not interested in making a bid. WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn Mayor Bob Buckhorn says the invitation from the Democratic National Committee to bid for the 2016 convention is “flattering,” but if the party's rule against corporate support is still in place, he is not interested in making a bid.WILL VRAGOVIC | Times
Published February 27 2014
Updated February 28 2014

TAMPA — The Democratic National Committee has invited Tampa to consider bidding for the party's 2016 national convention, but Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Thursday that he's cool to the idea.

"It's flattering," he said of the DNC's invitation, which also went to a couple of dozen other cities nationwide. "After hosting the Republican National Convention, I think everyone recognizes that we set the standard for how those events should be run."

The 2012 GOP convention here attracted 50,000 visitors. Shortened by a day because of Tropical Storm Isaac, the RNC generated a direct economic impact calculated at more than $214 million. The week saw only two arrests and no violent clashes, though civil libertarians contend an excessive police presence chilled the exercise of free speech.

But however proud Buckhorn is of Tampa's record on the RNC, he said "the Democratic convention is a very different animal."

"I think it would be much more difficult to be able to put together a competitive bid for the Democrats, largely because in 2012, they prohibited the city of Charlotte (N.C.) from taking corporate money," he told reporters. "You guys saw the numbers."

Without corporate or lobbyist support, the Democrats' host committee in Charlotte struggled to raise $24.1 million in cash and in-kind contributions — far short of its $36.6 million goal. Planners cut millions from the budget but still had to draw nearly $8 million from a $10 million line of credit that Duke Energy had extended for the convention.

"By contrast, our host committee raised $50-plus million," Buckhorn noted. The private, nonprofit Tampa Bay Host Committee received about 91 percent of its money in six- or seven-figure chunks. Sixty percent of its support came from just 18 donors, including Cisco Systems, AT&T, Bright House Networks, Microsoft, Bank of America, Florida Power & Light and the American Petroleum Institute.

Nine pages of specifications the DNC sent to Buckhorn spell out a range of logistical requirements that the city knows well — for an arena, for hotels, for buses and for security — but say nothing about corporate support. Rather, the DNC simply said it expects a local committee to "develop a financial package consisting of cash and in-kind services to cover the cost" of hosting the convention.

Still, Buckhorn is not interested in risking a replay of Charlotte's experience. In the months before the 2012 conventions, he regularly talked to then-Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, who was personally involved in raising money for the local host committee, something Buckhorn didn't do.

"If that (DNC) requirement is still in place, I can't see a scenario that I would be willing to put the city at risk to host that knowing full well that we couldn't raise the money without taking corporate money," the mayor said.

And unlike the GOP, Buckhorn said, the Democratic Party does not have an infrastructure of donors with deep pockets in this part of Florida. By contrast, St. Petersburg businessman Bill Edwards and two of his companies put in $4.6 million of the money for the RNC.

"I just don't think that we have the resources here in the Tampa Bay area to muster the kind of money that it would take to put on a comparable convention, and I don't want to do anything less than what we did before," Buckhorn said.

If the city won the bid to host and fell short, the burden would fall on the city "to kick in the money to make up the difference, and I'm not just willing to do it."

Democratic donors in South Florida might have that kind of money, Buckhorn said, "but why would someone in South Florida write a check to a convention in Tampa?" (That's a hurdle the RNC's host committee knows well. For all of its success anywhere else, it had little luck raising money in Orlando or from big players like Disney or Universal Studios.)

Buckhorn did share the DNC's letter with Santiago Corrada, the president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, which is following City Hall's lead.

"We're not inclined to pursue it if the mayor's not in support and if there's not a local push to raise the monies that are necessary," said Corrada, who was Buckhorn's chief of staff and City Hall's main liaison to the RNC before he went to work for Visit Tampa Bay.

Buckhorn acknowledges the irony of a Democratic mayor who is warmer to the memory of hosting an RNC than to the prospect of hosting a DNC.

"Emotionally, my heart would be clearly on the stage at the Democratic National Convention, but the practical financial realist in me as a mayor recognizes that they're two very different things," he said. "I'm not naive enough to think that we could pull this off without an awful lot of help that I'm just not sure is there."

DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz wrote Tampa and other cities last month to gauge their interest in the 2016 convention.

She asked for written responses by Saturday from cities that want to bid. Philadelphia says it's in. St. Louis, Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas, have opted out.

For Tampa, it's a "feather in the cap even to be considered," said Ken Jones, president of the Tampa Bay Host Committee for the RNC.

"It would be a tremendous opportunity to Tampa to shine again," said Jones, who is on record promising to help if the DNC ever decided to come to Tampa. "That said, you have to have the support of the city's leadership. That includes the mayor, the business community, the philanthropic community. If you don't have that support, it's hard to do."

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.