Will he or won't he? In his downtown office plastered with pictures drawn by his two daughters, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn will only say that he's considering a bid for governor in 2018. But Buckhorn is less reticent on other topics, including the state's gun laws, his beloved city on the river and what fellow Democrats need to do to get back in the game.
Buckhorn, 57, took office in 2011 and handily won reelection last year, facing only a write-in challenger. He spent eight years on the city council after serving as special assistant to former Mayor Sandra Freedman. A native of Evanston, Ill., Buckhorn settled in Tampa in 1982. His, Catherine, is a prominent obstetrician/gynecologist, and the couple has two daughters, Grace, 14, and Colleen, 10.
Buckhorn received international attention in 2012 when Hurricane Isaac delayed the start of the Republican National Convention in Tampa.
The News Service has five questions for Bob Buckhorn:
Q: You made a big name for yourself during the Republican National Convention in 2012 and, as a Democrat, got a lot of love from Republicans. Did that event have any impact on the arc of your career?
BUCKHORN: I always approached that event not as a partisan event but as an economic-development opportunity for my city. I knew that if we were going to be on the international stage as a city that was up and coming, a city that could manage big events like this, that I couldn't be worried about what took place inside the building and the partisan nature of it. I'm a Democrat. I'm proud to be a Democrat. My job was to be the best host that I possibly could be for the Republican National Convention and make sure that the environment was safe, that the logistics were in, that the folks that were here had a great time. That's what I really attempted to do. And I think, by most measures, it was a tremendous success, both for the Republican convention and certainly for the city of Tampa. In spite of the hurricane, which actually focused more attention on us than perhaps it would have. I think I was America's weatherman for about two days. But I think we demonstrated to the world what we were capable of doing, and we demonstrated to ourselves what we could do. It was bigger than the Super Bowl by a significant amount. We're good at doing Super Bowls. This was a huge event for a mid-sized American city to step up, to host, and to do it virtually flawlessly. So to the extent that I endeared myself to Republicans as someone who would play fair and was less concerned about the politics of it and more concerned about the execution of it, then that's good to hear.
Q: Everybody's talking about you running for governor. You haven't said whether you will or not. Are you going to run?
BUCKHORN: I don't know. I'm looking at it. I think Tampa is going to have a hell of a story to tell at the end of this next four years. It will be the story of the renaissance of an American city that had been knocked to its knees by the recession. It's a story of resilience, a story of managing a 4,500-person operation, and doing so without concern for partisan politics. A far more pragmatic approach, that mayoral type of leadership, I think could apply at the state level. So we're going to take a look at it. I will tell you this, though. The day I have to leave here, they're going to have to pry my cold, dead fingers off this desk. I've got the best job in American politics. I love what I do, and I love being the mayor. I think being the mayor's the best job in politics. But I also think that skill set is transferrable to a larger stage in a fashion, in a way that I think would resonate with voters. More focus on results. More focused on doing what you said you were going to do. Less concerned about scoring political points. That's what mayors do.
Q: What advice would you give Florida Democrats, who can't seem to get their mojo back on a state level since Gov. Lawton Chiles died in 1998?
BUCKHORN: I think they need to be able to compete north of Orlando. You can't write off a whole swath of the state and expect to be competitive in a statewide election. So that means you've got to have candidates that can talk to voters and share the same values as voters north of Orlando, from Jacksonville all the way to Pensacola. You don't have to win, but you've got to compete. You've got to be in the game and you've got to pull in the low 40s. You can't pull 35 percent and expect to win. You need Bill Nelson kind of numbers. And I think the bench of the Democratic Party are the big-city mayors. It's Buddy Dyer. It's Jack Seiler. Obviously Alvin (Brown, former Jacksonville mayor) lost up there, but I think it is seasoned CEOs who are used to running large entities, who are used to balancing the budget and having revenues meet the expenditures, who are used to hiring and firing people, who are held accountable every day for delivering what they say they're going to do. That's what mayors do. It's very different than a legislator. And I think --- I could be wrong --- but I think that's what the voters want. They're tired of politics. And they're tired of partisanship. They want people that are just going to get the job done.
(An argument might also be made that, if you don't focus enough on South Florida and don't get the base voters pumped up enough, you're not going to win in a statewide election as a Democrat.)
That's true. For me, that's a given. You've got to be competitive in the Democratic base precincts, Democratic base counties. But you also don't do it to the exclusion of the rest of the state. I mean, if Charlie (Crist) had been more competitive north of Orlando, he would have won.
(Some might say if he had your support, he might have won.)
I'm not sure I deliver that many votes for Tampa. But I think people look at mayors differently. When they judge a mayor, it's not on the political points that you score. It's on performance. It's on results. It's on managing and running and growing a city. And that's a different cat. It's a different style of governance. It's a different type of politician. I was just with John Hickenlooper. He was the mayor of Denver. He was a business guy, not your typical politician, and is now the governor of Colorado. His appeal was refreshing. His candor, his can-do. His let's get everyone together, let's not worry about who's a Dem and who's a Repub. I think people are looking for that. I think they're crying out for it. I think they're looking to be inspired. I mean, there was nothing inspirational about this last governor's race. … Which is why I think there's a window for a mayor, or someone like that, that can upset the status quo. I'm going to take the next year to see if it's right for me and my family, if the message works, if what I've done here, people can see taking place at the state level. It's a huge undertaking. And I've got young kids. I've got a wife who's got a huge medical practice that you can't uproot. So for me, it's a different dynamic than it might be for others. But we're going to make that decision as a family. We're committed to looking at it. I think we'll leave this city in better shape than it was given to me. I want to leave the state in better shape than it was given to me as well, because my kids are going to be coming home here. They were born here. I want them to remain here. And I want this state to be as competitive as it can possibly be. If I can do at the state level what we've done here, I think that's within the grasp. I think Florida really could realize its hopes and its dreams.
Q: Hillary Clinton isn't coming to the Florida Democrats' convention later this month. Is that a wise decision on her part? Why wouldn't she come to fire up the base in the third-largest state in the country that many say is crucial for a White House victory?
BUCKHORN: I don't know. This is a state that has historically been very friendly to the Clintons. I ran Hillsborough County for President Clinton in '96 and was involved in the '92 campaign. This is a state that loves President Clinton and loves Hillary. And I guess from a tactical standpoint maybe they feel compelled to spend more time in New Hampshire or Iowa or to some degree South Carolina. I can only surmise that. If she were to come, I think she would be obviously very warmly welcomed. It would help fire up the base. The activists want to see you and touch you and spend time with you. … I think it's a decision by her staff how to manage her time and where she's more effective. Clearly the base wants to be passionate about you. They want to know you. They want to touch you. Seeing you gets them fired up. And they're ready to win. For a lot of voters, particularly women, this is an aspirational race. I've got two daughters. I would love to see a woman president because that for me is a role model for them and will show them in no uncertain terms, at a very formative point in their life, that there are no barriers, and that we can elect a woman president and that there's nothing that can stop you, Grace and Colleen. So for me, it's personal. But I'm not going to second-guess their decision. They're playing a game at a whole higher level than I am.
Q: You got into it with Gov. Rick Scott before the convention when you wanted to ban guns in downtown Tampa during the event. The Legislature is now considering an open-carry bill that would allow people to wear guns on the outside of their clothes. What are your thoughts about that proposal and Florida's gun laws in general? Has the state gone too far?
BUCKHORN: I think some of this legislation just defies logic. I say that as a gun owner. I grew up around guns. I have guns. I have no problem with legitimate gun ownership. But I'm also a mayor that oftentimes has to clean up from the carnage of gun violence. I mean, I'm out there in the streets, as I was three weeks ago, looking at a kid that was lying there in the dirt that had just been shot and is now paralyzed for life. That's the impact of guns in the wrong hands. So is there a sensible path here? Absolutely there is. But this discussion about open carry and guns on campuses has just gone way too far, way too far. And even responsible gun owners will tell you that the NRA doesn't speak for them and that they are not opposed to common-sense gun legislation, including three-day waiting periods, including the ability to limit the capacity of the magazines. You don't need an AK-47 to kill a quail. You just don't.