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A few words on political ‘handlers’

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Twice in about a week I’ve reported on Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s “foot-in-mouth problem.” In the latest blog, I cited four times over approximately six months where Buckhorn’s choice of words have been called into question by some people.

While some comments, like the one where he basically blamed a 14-year-old who was gunned down in broad daylight for his own shooting, were more egregious than others. They all led me to the same conclusion – Buckhorn’s brain-to-mouth filter seems to be on the fritz.

Near the end of my latest blog I wrote Buckhorn “needs a better handler.”

Monday morning I received a phone call from a reader who asked not to be identified (no, it’s not Buckhorn’s “handler.”) This person was not happy with the aforementioned statement and suggested that instead of deflecting blame to Buckhorn’s staff for not keeping him quiet, I should put it squarely where it belongs – on Buckhorn.

As a journalist/reporter/blogger I’m quite careful about changing wording in a story just because someone cried foul. I can’t go changing every word-choice just because someone thought it would be better stated differently. If it’s something factually inaccurate or a grammatical or spelling error, the change is a no-brainer. But this had more nuance. Even Buckhorn fans would probably agree he sometimes picks the wrong words.

The term “handler” is regularly used in the media when referring to political gaffes. Elected officials and candidates have actual paid people whose job it is to guide messages. So when their guy or gal slips up it’s a kick to the shins for those staffers.

My knee-jerk reaction was to take the “handler” reference out because this reader is right – they were Buckhorn’s words and the onus should fall on him.

But I chose not to change my wording and the reasons deserve their own spotlight.

First off, referring to a “handler” isn’t necessarily a slight to any one person. There are any number of staff members who could guide Buckhorn into crafting better messages. But even that doesn’t matter. Those people probably have told him to calm down on the abrasive language and probably smack their heads every time he fails to get the message.

Instead, what an insult to Buckhorn’s ability as a leader to say he needs an astute person to make sure he doesn’t wind up with a foot in his mouth? If the mayor of one of Florida’s largest cities can’t figure out that insulting the populace of a tourist-drawing city is a bad idea, maybe he should re-think the whole mayor thing.

An elected official needs to be able to craft positive messages while still asserting him/herself as a strong leader. Buckhorn has the strong leader thing down to a science as I noted in a former column about the Pier in St. Pete. Buckhorn’s staunch ability to get stuff done is a thing of beauty. But he needs to find a balance between the two.

That’s where handlers come in. And if Buckhorn needs better handlers or more handlers, well, that doesn’t look so good for him.

Second, as much as I’d like political “handlers” to not be a thing, they are. I’d love for all elected officials and candidates for office to just say whatever they’re thinking. It’s those thoughts that drive policy and at least then we’d have a better idea of what we’re in for.

I’d love for these people to know how to handle themselves without a PR person in tow. I’d love for the PR people to be able to answer media inquiries instead of coaching their boss on the do’s and don’ts of press conferences.

But that’s just not the way it is. So, in the meantime I’m just going to keep calling out the stilly remarks while recognizing that team Buckhorn is, in fact, a team. He’s not just one person. He’s an office. Like it or not, when he screws up it’s on the whole team.

So, that blog still says he needs a better handler, but it also still lists a scathing report of just a random sampling of Buckhornisms. It also explains “elected officials are expected to act with at least some moderate sense of decorum.”

Let me just add: That should be with or without a handler.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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