The appearance of two of the most important public officials in the Tampa Bay Area – Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman – brought out a large audience to the St. Petersburg Yacht Club on Friday afternoon in an event sponsored by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club event.
To no one’s surprise, it was a bit of a lovefest, as the two men have been friends since the 1990’s, and have often been on the same ideological wavelength.
As Buckhorn noted, the two were charter members of the Democratic Leadership Conference, the centrist-leaning political group formed in the 1980’s in part as a reaction to the Democratic Party’s leftward excesses of the 60’s and 70’s. And though both consider themselves “Clinton Democrats” (they both have endorsed Hillary Clinton for president this year), Kriseman has shown himself on some issues to be more ideologically progressive during his time in the Legislature and as mayor.
One obvious policy disagreement between the two men is in regards to Cuba. Buckhorn is an old-school Cold Warrior on the subject, and has distanced himself from the rest of the Tampa political and business establishment which has mostly embraced the idea of creating closer ties to the island nation. So on the subject of wanting to recruit a Cuba consulate, Kriseman has been the aggressor in trying to lure that to his home town.
“Clearly, the challenges that Mayor Buckhorn faces are not challenges that we face here in St. Petersburg,” Kriseman said, referring to the historical links that Tampa and Cuba share and the fact that there are still a number of anti-Castro Cuban exiles who live in Tampa.
Although the question asked (by Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam C. Smith, who later was awarded the “Fang & Claw,” for asking the best question, and meant sharing a photo with the mayors as seen above) was about hosting a Cuban consulate, Buckhorn responded by saying that he hasn’t interfered with other people going to Cuba (though it’s not really clear how he could), but emphasized he won’t be visiting Havana anytime soon.
“If St. Pete gets the consulate, or if it’s decided that it’s coming to Tampa, I will abide by the law, but I’m not going,” he said.
When asked by Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch what would be their top wish if they were “King for a Day,” Buckhorn went with an improved transportation system. “We hope we’ll have a referendum in 2016,” he said. “That has got to pass in our community.”
That’s a big if, though, considering that the region’s recent track record on transit referendums. And it won’t be known for another month at a minimum whether the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners will actually vote to put a proposed half-cent sales tax on the ballot.
Kriseman mused that he’d like the Legislature to pass a law that would allow cities like St. Pete and Tampa to have the ability to put their own referendums on the ballot, as current state law only allows counties to do so. Mayor Buckhorn attempted to lobby the majority GOP Bay Area Legislative delegation a few years ago, with no success.
Kriseman also put in another plug for his pet project that appears to have overwhelming support – that being a ferry service that would run between the two cities and which he has begun going to various local governments hat in hand to ask for an earmark of $350,000 to begin negotiations with HMS Ferries later this year. “We can definitely connect our cities together with a ferry service,” he said.
Regarding the latest in the Tampa Bay Rays stadium saga, where the status quo is in danger of being interrupted next week if the St. Pete City Council opts to vote to allow the team to explore options in Hillsborough County, Mayor Kriseman was resolute that at the end of the day, the Rays will ultimately choose to remain in St. Pete, though he may be the only one who truly believes that.
Acting as the respectful guest, Buckhorn said that he has tried to stay away from talking much about the subject since being elected nearly five years ago, and certainly wasn’t eager to talk speculatively in a subject that certain remains sensitive to many St. Pete residents. “That is a decision that you have to resolve between this city and this mayor and this organization, and until that’s decided, I’m staying out of it.”
One hot topic that has landed squarely on Kriseman’s lap in the past week is the controversy over Jamal Bryant, the keynote speaker at the 30th annual MLK Leadership Awards Breakfast.
Bryant is a nationally known black pastor who has made incendiary remarks about gays in the past, and it’s been reported that the Kriseman administration has reacted upon learning of his views by not awarding him a symbolic key to the city. That’s led to the St. Pete Chapter of the NAACP to make a statement criticizing the mayor.
“I find his comments and the things that he has said not in line with who we are as a city and the vision of who we want to be as a city,” Kriseman said when asked about the issue.
He disputed reports that said the city is not giving him a key because of his disdain for the comments, and said it’s actually a new city policy regarding of keys.
“I will go and I will talk about, and hopefully educate him about our community and who we are in St. Petersburg,” Kriseman said.
Buckhorn didn’t speak specifically of the incident, but said that one thing that he’s always admired in Kriseman is “his recognition that in a community’s diversity, in all of its shades, ethnicities, orientations and genders, that you were stronger and that you were better. That was not the case previously,” he said, a reference to St. Pete’s last two mayors – Bill Foster and Rick Baker – who were reluctant to support LGBT rights.
Mayor Buckhorn also reiterated his current stance when asked about any gubernatorial ambitions in 2018, which is that he’s still contemplating the possibility.
“I’m going to look at it,” he said. “I can’t tell you that I’m going to do it. It’s a huge undertaking and a big, big decision for my family,” which include two daughters. “Four years ago, when they said I couldn’t win, I said I had an obligation to those two kids to leave my city in better shape than it was given to me. We also have that same obligation as parents to leave our state, better than it was given to us. So we’ll see.”