Bob Buckhorn says Florida Democrats must have a message for centrists to win

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Two weeks ago, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn became a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor of Florida in 2018. But as he begins to start up what should be a relatively easy re-election campaign in early 2015, the lifelong Democrat (who made news by staying neutral in this year’s gubernatorial contest) has some advice for his party as they again spend some quality time over the next few months trying to figure out how to improve their lot in the coming years.

“I think we need to have a message and a messenger that resonates witih centrist Floridians – both D and R: Nominate people who are not scary to Republicans, not scary to the business community.”

In other words, Buckhorn isn’t going along with the message delivered earlier this week by Florida Democratic Vice Chair Alan Clendenin that the party should resist the temptation to go to the middle.

“If you are to the far left, you are never going to win,” he stated flatly in an interview on Wednesday afternoon in his City Hall office, with Press Secretary Ali Glisson sitting in. “You can’t win. That’s not where most Floridians are.” Buckhorn says that while issues that animate the base of the Democratic Party such as contending with income inequality are important, he insists “You can’t govern from the far left.”

The mayor, who became a member of the centrist-oriented Democratic Leadership Conference that was created in the wake of successive Democratic Party blowouts in presidential elections in the 1980s, says the Bill Clinton model that got him elected president in 1992 is how Florida Democrats should run today. He says the party must move closer to the center and acknowledge the fact that without job creation and a pro business-oriented approach, “We’re going to wander in the wilderness for a little while.”

And,  as he has said often of late, he believes that Democratic mayors like Buddy Dyer in Orlando and Jack Seiler in Fort Lauderdale are Democrats who are proven, pragmatic problem-solvers who can take their executive skills to be viable candidates for higher office in Tallahassee. Obviously some of those other Democratic mayors you could throw in the mix as the nucleus of a solid Democratic bench would also include himself, and possibly Rick Kriseman in St. Petersburg and Alvin Young in Jacksonville.

“Mayors tend to be viewed through the prism not of partisan politics but in terms of their accomplishments: Can you balance your million-dollar budget, can you create jobs, can you work with the business community? And grow the economy? Are you an actual manager? Are you a CEO? That’s very different than a legislator running for office. I think a mayoral message of good governance is a message that can resonate out there,” he says.

A former political analyst on Bay News 9, obviously Buckhorn can play political pundit as well as anyone in the Tampa Bay area. But unlike them, he currently has a job to do in government, and though there hasn’t been any public polling for awhile, the mayor appears to be headed toward a relatively stress-free re-election campaign next year. But that doesn’t mean he’s not taking it seriously: The same crew that has been with him for so many previous election runs — Keith Frederick, John Coley, Beth Leythem and Dane Strother, along with his 2011 campaign aide,  Siobhan Harley — will all be part of his 2015 campaign.  “We’re going to raise money to run a campaign and we’ll see in January who’s lined up against us (currently only activist Becky Rubright has announced she will oppose the mayor). But we’ll be ready. I love campaigning and I hate to lose.”

It’s no secret that Buckhorn digs his  job. SaintPetersBlog asked him if there weren’t term limits in place that required him to exit his office after eight years, could he imagine making it a job for life? A la William Daley in Chicago, Thomas Menino in Boston or even Michael Bloomberg in New York, who through the help of some City Council members was able to change the laws there and win a third term in office back in 2009. Then again, there is precedent for that in Tampa, and the last time somebody tried to do that while still in office — Dick Greco over a decade ago — well, that idea didn’t go down too well with the electorate.

“I think it’s the best job in America, to be a big-city mayor in a strong-mayor form of government,” Buckhorn says. “I don’t know that I would ever look at anything else beyond being the mayor if I wasn’t term-limited out. I mean, I enjoy this job that much, but … I think eight years is plenty of time to do what you are gonna do. I think voters put that in place for a reason. I think they’re comfortable with that. Now as popular as I may or may not be now, I would never go to the voters and ask them to change that. I’m assuming and operating under the premise that four years from now I will be term-limited out, and I will be a former mayor.”

And there’s still much to be done in the next four years, none bigger than being a leader on the movement to bring mass transit to the region, a task that Buckhorn conceded in an earlier SaintPetersBlog post will be an “uphill battle.”

There’s also the issue of homelessness. During the mayor’s reign the City Council  has passed ordinances cracking down on aggressive panhandling, and the mayor says he sympathizes with downtown and Tampa Heights interests who still think there’s a problem there.

“I share those same concerns that those merchants have,” he says. “I’m up there all the time, I’m always walking around on the weekends. I’m driving around. Salvation Army is a problem. They’re going to have to change their model. Doing the feedings and allowing people to que up and sprawl all over Florida Avenue  is not a solution. The church groups that are coming and doing feedings in a public park are not helping the situation. I would rather have them (at) established, regulated homeless shelters where there’s an abundance of food available, as opposed to having church groups show up, pop the trunk of the car, feed people. They take the Styrofoam containers, walk three blocks, and throw them down. And you can follow the trail going up Tampa Heights and all the neighborhoods around there.”

Some of the mayor’s critics accuse him of playing hardball. There have been strong rumors circulating that Buckhorn was actively recruiting candidates to oppose Councilwoman Yolie Capin in her re-election next spring. Community activist Paul Erni has filed to oppose Capin. He reportedly met with Buckhorn prior to announcing his candidacy, but dismissed the suggestion that he’s targeting anybody. “No, I talk to people all the time. People who run come in to see me, to sort of get the world view.” Nevertheless, the mayor didn’t react when asked to comment on the fact that he wasn’t at Capin’s big fundraising kick-off at Ulelel earlier this summer, whereas he was at similar events for Council members Mike Suarez and Harry Cohen. Buckhorn calls the two “go-to guys on the council.”

“They’ve carried a lot of water for us. …We’re big supporters of them, we want them to come back. So I will continue to do that. Those council members who I want to help I will help, but you know, Council races are going to take care of themselves.”

In the interim, the mayor will keep on keeping on, showing up at multiple events each week, giving stirring speeches at major events, and in the case of the transit initiative, leading — not just in Tampa, but in the entire Tampa Bay region as well.

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