1. Florida Politics

Welcoming the RNC, Tampa's Democratic mayor says business trumps politics

Published Jul. 27, 2012

TAMPA — One month to go, and the Democratic mayor of Tampa can't wait to welcome the Republicans to his town.

Make no mistake: Mayor Bob Buckhorn's partisan credentials are in order.

In the fourth grade, he stuffed envelopes for Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. As a City Council member, he ran then-President Bill Clinton's re-election campaign in Hillsborough County. This year, he is a vocal supporter of President Barack Obama.

But when it comes to hosting the Republican National Convention, Buckhorn says business trumps politics.

"For me, this is an economic development opportunity," says Buckhorn, who turns 54 Sunday. "There's a time and a place for partisan politics. Right now my entire focus is on running this event and making sure it's successful both for the Republican Party and the city of Tampa."

The stakes are high not only for Tampa (pop 336,000), but for the 2.8 million residents of the Tampa Bay area, where a backlog of more than 15,000 homes in various stages of foreclosure weighs down the local economy. If the bay area sparkles and conventioneers go home happy, local officials hope for a boost to tourism, growth and corporate relocations.

"A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Buckhorn says. "I think when we look back 20 years from now, this will be a turning point in our development. We got to tell our story to the entire world."

But a convention marred by violence would spoil the message.

That raises the stakes for Buckhorn personally.

"To some degree, I will be judged on how the city performs," says Buckhorn, who plans to run for re-election in 2015 but is not talking about any ambitions beyond a second term. "I've wanted this job. I knew how high the stakes were. I want the ball at the buzzer."

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The nice thing, Buckhorn says, is that last year so many people had written him off politically that now he feels liberated. He doesn't have to worry about his political career.

"I wasn't supposed to be here," he says.

In the mayor's race, Buckhorn campaigned on a dogged pro-business platform, emerged from a five-candidate field and defeated three rivals who had never lost an election.

Overnight, Buckhorn shook his reputation as a three-time loser (state House, mayor, County Commission) who couldn't close the deal in a big election. He captured a job he had longed for ever since serving as a special assistant to a previous Tampa mayor 25 years before.

And by the time he took the oath of office in April 2011, City Hall's convention planning had been under way for months.

"We knew from the very beginning it was going to be a tremendous planning effort, and everyone had to be involved," said former Mayor Pam Iorio, Buckhorn's predecessor and another Democrat.

Iorio had named her administrator for the convention center, tourism, recreation and cultural arts, Santiago Corrada, to be the city's liaison to the convention. He and police Chief Jane Castor began coordinating the city's efforts with other agencies on both sides of Tampa Bay.

As mayor, Buckhorn made Corrada his chief of staff but had him keep his RNC portfolio. Otherwise, he's made few changes to the wide-ranging, multi-agency planning that began with Iorio.

Being pro-active has worked, say longtime GOP convention organizers. Mike Miller, the convention's chief operating officer, has worked on the planning for 11 GOP conventions. This time, he's met the mayor, but only socially.

"The fact that I don't know him is a positive," Miller says. "I haven't had occasion to have had conflict with the mayor."

Buckhorn's role model for the RNC is former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who was mayor of Philadelphia and chairman of the Democratic National Committee when his city hosted the 2000 Republican National Convention.

RNC veterans sometimes joke that Democratic mayors have a knack for being great hosts, and Buckhorn often says he wants to surpass Rendell as the GOP's favorite convention host.

There are some similarities between the two, says Tampa Bay Host Committee president Ken Jones, who is working his fifth GOP convention.

"Both have a very keen sense of what's good for the region," Jones said, "and they both understand that this event is unique. You have to take advantage of the opportunity for your city while it's here."

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Buckhorn says he is far less concerned about what happens inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will accept the nomination, than what happens outside it, where up to 15,000 protesters are expected to converge.

City officials expect nearly all the demonstrators to be peaceful, but predict that a small percentage will try to vandalize property and disrupt the convention. They also say they've studied previous conventions and learned from past mistakes — such as failing to put officers from different agencies on a common radio system. They have vowed to use common sense and discretion.

Still, Buckhorn surprised a few listeners last fall when he told a luncheon crowd that authorities would be "brutally efficient" in dealing with law-breakers.

He has since tempered his remarks, saying police will "be there to be tour guides or they will be there to remove troublemakers."

Tampa is creating 7 acres of designated protest areas and plans to make sure demonstrators have free access to portable toilets, shade and drinking water. Police plan to hand out informational fliers.

"We recognize it's our job to make sure everyone has a good experience," Buckhorn says. "I think our police officers are committed to doing that.

"We're also going to be equally prepared to react to those who choose to break the law, but we're going to do it surgically. We're not going to do it by engaging the crowd. We're going to go in and extract those that are causing problems and remove them from the scene."

"Probably a nice change from brutal efficiency," says Michael Pheneger, a retired Army colonel who is president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

But Pheneger would like the mayor to go further. The city needs cool heads and a light touch when it comes to non-violent demonstrators, he says.

"What happens if you have an anarchist group that wants to break windows and paint buildings, and you have another group that wants to exercise civil disobedience and sit in the intersection?" he said. "You need to handle those groups in very different ways."

With the RNC taking place in the midst of a difficult economy and nationwide anger, Buckhorn says officials expect challenges. But he says the city is committed to protecting the First Amendment rights of peaceful demonstrators. Police have worked closely with other agencies. Officers have trained for more than a year.

Tampa's ready, he says.

"Now it's just time for the whistle to blow and for the game to start."