1. Opinion

Hooper: A mayor's words matter

Published Jun. 11, 2015

He's a sexist.

He's a bully.

He's out of touch.

I don't agree with those hyperbolic assessments of Bob Buckhorn, but in the four-plus years he has served as Tampa's mayor, the critics have never been as vocal.

Friends and colleagues have asked, almost demanded, that I call out Buckhorn for comments they've deemed out of bounds.

Much of the criticism stems from a comment Buckhorn made after an assailant gunned down Edward "E.J." Harris, 14, after he played basketball at the city-owned Woodland Terrace Park.

"These young people, if they want to end up a statistic, either incarcerated or dead, the choice is theirs," Buckhorn said at the scene. "Either get out of the life and find good role models, or you end up in the street in a pool of blood at age 14. That's the reality."

On its face, the statement seemed to be an unfair indictment that lacked any degree of empathy. And the more we learned about Harris, the more it appeared he was an innocent and a possible victim of mistaken identity — not a teen who associated with the wrong crowd.

Asked about the comment Tuesday, Buckhorn insisted he was speaking broadly about a rash of killings that has seen 18 homicides in Tampa in 2015, including four teens.

"I was talking about the need to intervene in the lives of these young men before they make bad choices," Buckhorn said. "The whole problem is we have young men killing each other, taking the wrong path in life and getting seduced by the streets or the gangs .

"But what I said had nothing to do with E.J."

It's an important clarification, because the statement has folks making all manner of accusations. At the very least, they conclude he's out of touch and was too quick to speak off the cuff. The harsher assessment is that he fully understood the ramifications of the statement and simply wanted to score political points with a conservative constituency that may aid a potential gubernatorial bid in 2018.

Buckhorn insists people have read too much into his statement. After a recent meeting with African-American leaders, he said he recognizes that it's not a racial gap that has left him struggling to understand the problem, it's a generational gap.

"We don't know how to talk to these kids," Buckhorn lamented. "We've got to intervene at an earlier age to break this cycle.

"We've got to get in there and give them reasons to choose the right path, not the wrong path."

The comments reflect a sincerity that has helped Buckhorn earn respect in the African-American community, particularly with pastors. He says he will continue to work with them to reverse the trends that have led to the spate of shootings.

A mayor's comments must always set the proper tone for the city — in the minutes after a tragedy and in the days that follow, so it was good to hear him recast his initial statement related to the Harris shooting.

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Too bad he didn't do the same with a comment he made earlier this year. After four women on the Hillsborough County School Board voted to fire superintendent MaryEllen Elia without cause, Buckhorn called them "mean girls." On Tuesday, he didn't back down from the statement, other than to say it wasn't sexist, but pointed and accurate.

"I generally try to choose my words carefully," Buckhorn said. "Other times, I'm comfortable with what I said because I was trying to deliver a message."

One friend says if Buckhorn runs for governor, she won't vote for him because there was no reason to introduce gender to his criticism of the board members. I don't think she's alone.

During his tenure, the mayor has earned the nickname, "Swagger." Ballrooms swelled at celebratory parties after he won a second term unopposed. It makes you wonder if the popularity has gone to his head.

"I still get up every day hungry because I know what it feels like to get beat," Buckhorn said. "I know what it feels like to have your goals denied and I'm thankful for every opportunity I have to do this job."

My advice? The mayor has to make sure the confidence of his swagger doesn't cross over into cockiness. Ultimately, he will be measured on what he does more than what he says.

But make no mistake, a mayor's words always matter.

That's all I'm saying.