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Bob Buckhorn battles his first major test as Tampa Mayor

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By any measure, Tampa has flourished since its citizens elected Bob Buckhorn to become Mayor in 2011. Saddled with budget deficits in his first couple of years in office, he adroitly put the city’s economy back on solid footing post-recession. There’s been a plethora of new parks and swimming pools built throughout the city, and an expanded Riverwalk has brought a whole new focus to downtown. Improvements have been made in quality of life issues like code enforcement, adding new street lights to areas that needed it, and a continued reduction in crime (though homicides are up in 2015).

In short, Tampa’s got its swagger back, as his first ads for re-election proclaimed in January.

But he now faces the first crisis in his tenure with the published report that his Police Department has been disproportionately citing blacks for bicycle infractions. It’s the first blemish in what has been a somewhat charmed first term in office, and has led some analysts to question if it might affect his trajectory towards the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018.

After laying low for a couple of days after the Tampa Bay Times report surfaced last Sunday, Buckhorn and Police Chief Jane Castor announced on Wednesday that they have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to review the police department’s  traffic citations of cyclists. The Times reported that 79 percent of people cited for bicycle violations were black.

Castor has disputed the premise of the story, but acknowledges that the statistics are “troubling.” Buckhorn has stood steadfast behind her, saying that “allegations of racial profiling create an emotionally charged discussion within the community, but so does crime.”

“Buckhorn seems to be saying mostly the right things now,” says former University of Tampa political science professor Rich Piper, who said the initial comments refuting the story by Chief Jane Castor surprised him. “Let’s wait and see. I think it has the potential to do damage.”

“When you look at this on the macro level, it doesn’t look good, which means it requires more study,” says Tampa attorney Chris Griffin. “I think the more critical time will be how the mayor and the police chief respond once the facts are ferreted out. That’s the test.”

Political analyst Chris Ingram says that it’s to Buckhorn’s credit that after more than four years he’s only now having to contend with a major controversy. But he says he’s got one now.

“I have to give Bob the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t know about this in all likelihood,” Ingram says. Neither, apparently, did Chief Castor, who told reporters this week that she requested that the Times send their statistical report to her office for review, but says they never did (the reporters deny that Castor ever asked for their data).

University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett says if the gubernatorial election were this year or even in 2016, it could prove potentially problematic, but being three years away gives Buckhorn plenty of time to survive any collateral damage. However, he and others says a lot depends on what the federal investigation turns up.

Chief Castor has said that she’s confident her department will come out looking just fine.

Jewett is based in Orlando, but says he learned of the story when it showed up in his Microsoft news feed, showing how extensive the story has traveled in the past week (MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry did two segments on it Saturday on her show).

Observers note that with African-Americans such a critical demographic to any Democrats chances in a statewide race, issues like this can percolate.

In the 2006 Florida Democratic gubernatorial contest between Jim Davis and Rod Smith, Davis’ 1990 vote in the state Legislature not to compensate two wrongfully convicted black men (Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee) became a flashpoint in the campaign.

Professor Jewett says that the “riding while black” issue could resurface in a Democratic primary, dependent on who is running. “If it’s a moderate centrist candidate (such as Buckhorn) and then a more liberal candidate, you never know, that candidate still might make an issue out of it.”

Yvette Lewis with the Hillsborough County NAACP says she’s sure the issue will be brought up in a competitive primary. She says she hasn’t been impressed with how the mayor’s been dealing with the story in respect to the black community in Tampa.

“Our feelings shouldn’t be ignored, and I feel that he’s ignoring our feelings in the community,” she says, grading his efforts as a D +. “He’s talking to his friends that are surrounding him, but he’s not talking to the community.”

Willie Lawson disagrees. The African-American Internet talk show host (who ran as a Republican for a Hillsborough County Commission seat in 2012) says Buckhorn’s call for the DOJ to come in investigate is “probably the biggest way he could act on it.”

On Friday, the TPD rejected a request by a host of local organizations to stop their enforcement of bike infractions until the D.O.J.’s investigation is complete.

Chris Griffin says he thinks the mayor has done a good job handling the situation, but says this should be used as a wake-up call for Tampa’s leaders. He referred to a younger African-American colleague who he works with at his law office who he often talks about race issues with.

“He said, ‘You need to read that article. It happens to me all the time,'” referring to being cited while riding a bicycle. “So that resonates with me.”

Buckhorn has to weigh those very real sensitivities in the black community with his longtime alliance and sympathies to the police department. How he handles that will be a test of his leadership going forward.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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