Bob Buckhorn: No Longer Waiting In The Wings

Bob Buckhorn. Love him or loathe him. But you can’t ignore him.

In politics, it’s often said, the name of the game is name recognition. For mayoral candidate Buckhorn, the name game is one he plays well. He’s been a fixture at City Hall for 15 years, starting in 1987 when he came on board as a 20-something special assistant to Mayor Sandy Freedman. Since 1995 he has been a media-magnet member of city council.

Last summer he was first to formally announce for a mayor’s race that was nearly two years out. He hit the ground running for office — with a pollster and consultant already on board and financial supporters identified. The idea was to be so daunting from the get-go as to intimidate or maybe co-opt some competition. The former Penn State lacrosse player was playing the other contact sport he loves.

These days he’s rolling out a slick, detailed “Blueprint” for the city showcasing his community commitments and plans for “transitioning Tampa to the new economy” via technology application. He would, among other things, appoint the city’s first Chief Technology Officer.

The 42-year-old Buckhorn doesn’t miss much. He remembers names, returns calls, follows up, works crowds, walks neighborhoods. When he is at his desk, it may be plunked down on someone’s lawn. Sure, it’s hokey, but it’s also a populist metaphor for neighborhood priorities.

He’s been notably outspoken on some high profile, galvanizing issues such as supporting the controversial city ordinance banning lap dances and trying to shut down Voyeur Dorm. As a result, some see him as a moralizing crusader. Others look to a quality-of-life champion. Still others view him as the consummate political opportunist. Many, of course, see what they want to see, but no one is blinded to the reality that few can top him for sheer visibility.

But knowing the Buckhorn name and recognizing the Buckhorn visage is not nearly the same thing as knowing Buckhorn. So says Buckhorn.

For example, there’s the perception that Buckhorn has been lusting for the mayor’s job since first setting foot in City Hall. That kind of calculated ambition is considered poor form by a lot of folks.

Buckhorn doesn’t deny that he’s been gearing up for this race since Sandy Freedman was a rookie mayor. He just disagrees that such a long-running aspiration is some sort of character flaw.

“What I’m preparing for is what amounts to being the CEO of a half-billion-dollar company with 4,500 employees,” explains Buckhorn. “Only in politics is it considered unseemly to hone your craft. This is a job you don’t just parachute into.

“For 15 years I have been working on making this city a better place,” he insists. “The biggest impact I can have is as mayor.”

While he has been an impact player for most of those 15 years, Buckhorn concedes another possible edge on the sword of name recognition.

“A lot of people only know me through TV,” he acknowledges. “It’s easy to characterize me based on one or two issues. Lap dancing obviously is one. In fact, it’s not even on the radar screen of my agenda. It’s simply one component, pure quality of life. But based on that, a lot of people probably thing I’m some right-wing Republican. I’m a Democrat.”

Actually a Democrat who sounds a lot like Rudy Giuliani cleaning up Times Square. Buckhorn also signs on to the “broken windows” approach to urban governance, saying he’d target “quality-of-life” issues such as code violations, dumping, vandalism and prostitution.

“You take care of the fundamentals first,” he states. “Sidewalks and potholes will take precedence over cutting ribbons,” he has said more than once.

He has pledged to appoint a Go Davis-like deputy mayor for neighborhoods and community empowerment.

He wants to “give everyone a seat at the table,” he’s fond of saying. “If we’re not relating to that single mother in College Hill, it doesn’t matter what happens in Culbreath Isles. We’re all in this together. Right now we’re more of a crowd than a community.”

While Buckhorn obviously hopes that populist message resonates in enough neighborhoods, he’s sensitive to charges that he’s not downtown friendly enough.

“The focal point of downtown must be the waterfront,” underscores Buckhorn. “It’s for tourists, conventioneers and us. It must be an 18-hour-a-day environment. Every weekend there has to be something. Be it jazz or blues or Irish music.

“I was a critic of using CIT (Community Investment Tax) money for the arts and the trolley,” recalls Buckhorn. “But that’s behind us. I will be committed to making them work. And Tampa can’t succeed without more housing downtown.”

Neither can Tampa succeed without asserting itself internationally and regionally — especially within the I-4 corridor, emphasizes Buckhorn.

“We are the Gateway to the Americas,” he says. “The mayor is the key political figure in it. He’s gonna have to go on the road like (Orlando Mayor) Glenda Hood gets out. That really helps. From a business standpoint, we ought to be cleaning their (Orlando) clock.

“The mayor of Tampa is the dominant political figure in the corridor,” says Buckhorn. “As I-4 goes, so goes Florida’s economy. It’s all part of competing globally.

“This city is on the verge of bustin’ loose,” assesses Buckhorn. “We have the tools and the potential. There’s no excuse not to be the dominant economic entity in the Southeast.”

One other thing, reminds Buckhorn. “I don’t mumble. You may not agree with me, but you always know where I stand.”Even when seated at a desk — on your neighbor’s lawn.

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