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  1. Opinion

The man who drives mayors (And yes, what happens in the car stays in the car)

Mike Victor, the man who drives Tampa mayors. [Photo courtesy of Ashley Bauman, City of Tampa]
Published Jun. 14

If the mayor is there, chances are so is Mike Victor. Though you might not see him.

He is discreetly seated at the bar as Tampa's mayor meets with important people over Cuban food. He's quietly at the back of a big policy meeting or by the stage at a downtown park as the mayor fires up a crowd. Sometimes, he gently extricates the mayor from lingering conversations and selfie requests to get to the next gig.

The career-cop-turned-executive-security-officer has driven Tampa mayors — he's currently on his third — to countless meetings, events, ribbon cuttings, first pitches, festivals, funerals and speeches. So many speeches.

"I told (former mayor Bob Buckhorn) if he ever wanted to call in sick, I'd be happy to give one of his speeches. I could," Victor said — the one about a town that had been knocked to its knees by the recession, about how nobody's kids were going to come back here for a call center job, about changing Tampa's economic DNA. "Now I'm trying to learn Jane Castor" — his former boss when she was police chief and now Tampa's new mayor.

From mornings waiting in mayoral kitchens to nights dropping them off, from conversations and phone calls overheard inside the black city-owned Suburban with the police lights, Victor has to know secrets. He's not saying.

He doesn't listen, he says. He gets amnesia, he says.

"Take 'em to the grave,'' he says. "The mayor wouldn't want me there if I had loose lips."

Okay, but there is the one about how Buckhorn, a mayor who truly loved his police radio, heard a burglary in progress and said let's go. Victor, picturing the two of them in suits and ties rolling up on a still occurring crime before the uniformed officers got there, made the strategic decision to stall. He drove slow and deliberately took a wrong turn. The mayor caught him. Buckhorn told that one himself, about the driver who had to slow the mayor down.

"Over the last eight years, I spent more time with Mike Victor than I did with my family," Buckhorn texted from a post-mayoral Ireland vacation. His daughters grew up calling him Mr. Mike. "Mike is a great cop and a trusted confidant to mayors."

Tampa mayors have been ambivalent about having someone chauffeur them around. (St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman generally drives himself in a city-issued Ford Explorer.) Castor, a former cop who knows the backstreets of this town by heart, said early on it felt "very awkward." But productivity and the ability to get work done between appointments is a strong selling point.

A cop made Victor want to be a cop. He was one of those kids who could have gone either way, raised by a hardworking single mother who was a nurse. A Temple Terrace police officer took an interest and became his mentor. On the day Victor couldn't figure out how to tie his tie for an interview with the Tampa Police Department, that officer came by in his patrol car and tied it for him.

Victor has this regular face, the guy standing behind you in line at the convenience store, which is an asset for going undercover as a druggie looking to buy crack or a john in prostitution cases. He's been a detective, a bicycle cop in public housing, a school resource officer. Some of his most rewarding work was on a human trafficking task force, work he kept at even as he drove mayors.

Driving Buckhorn for eight years got him a collection of the mayor's preppy hand-me-down ties, an appreciation for a good suit and also a taste for politics. Now 52, Victor could see himself maybe running for office one day.

But first, there's a new mayor to see to.

This month he retired and immediately returned as Castor's driver as a civilian employee and reserve cop. He is still learning his new/old boss. There's little things: He and Buckhorn are not excessively tall men, so he didn't have to adjust the seat when the mayor was going to drive himself. Castor stands a lanky, 6 feet tall. He'll have to remember that. It doesn't do to accordion one's boss.

Also, the last mayor liked to hit the trendy restaurants with the occasional side trip to old-school Cacciatore Bros. in West Tampa for a sausage sub. Castor is slender and athletic, a healthy eater who takes the stairs. Victor says he looks forward to losing some weight. Though he may have to hit Cacciatore solo.

People ask him how it's different, driving him and then her. You'll get no skinny there, either. Straight-faced, he tells them the car smells nicer.

This week he picked up the new mayor and headed off to breakfast with the Boy Scouts, interviews at two TV stations and a speech at the chamber of commerce.

"I don't know what she's talking about today," he says. "I just know where she's going."

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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