Andrew Gillum has the personal story.
Gwen Graham has the pedigree.
John Morgan has the bravado.
Phillip Levine has the money.
All four of the rumored contenders for the Democratic nomination for Florida governor have at least one defining characteristic that will shape the narratives of any campaigns they launch.
But it’s Bob Buckhorn who has the strongest selling point: a record of success as the two-term mayor of Tampa.
Yes, Graham and Levine have good track records, too. And Morgan has a record as a lawyer and businessman that will undoubtedly be attractive to many Democratic voters hungry for someone they think can win back the Governor’s Mansion in this Age of Trump.
But the Tampa success story, which reached another crescendo during the city’s hosting of the 2017 College Football National Championship, is the kind of story every candidate wishes they could tell.
“This is the first major event that we’ve had with the Riverwalk completed, and it’s the final piece of the puzzle,” Buckhorn told the Tampa Bay Times. “For us to have that now as part of our appeal really, really makes a difference.” (Be sure to read Janelle Irwin posit on how the spotlight from the college football playoff could help Buckhorn in 2018).
And what’s best about Tampa’s story is that it hasn’t yet reached its apex.
While Jeff Vinik‘s re-engineering of much of downtown Tampa is still years away, it is already delivering jobs and other economic benefits to the city. A billion-dollar renovation to the well-regarded Tampa airport is still underway. Port of Tampa seems to welcome a new cruise line every month.
During a decade when many of Florida’s biggest cities — Jacksonville, Orlando, St. Petersburg — enjoyed a renaissance, it’s Tampa which, arguably, is having the best run.
Now, if he wants to become governor, all Bob Buckhorn has to do is convince the rest of Florida he can do for it what he’s done in Tampa.
And right now there is an opening for Buckhorn to get into the race and define himself.
Gillum, the charismatic African-American mayor of Tallahassee, is working to insert himself into the statewide discussion about gun safety. But the trial balloons about aspirations for higher office he launches seem never to get much altitude.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, Levine released a video announcing he would not run for re-election as Miami Beach Mayor. It was the clearest indication to date that he intends for governor.
But the video did not generate much buzz. “If the point of the Mayor Levine video is that he is boring (and has a really big watch) then Mission Accomplished!” remarked Republican political consultant Tre Evers.
It’s a horrible vagary of life which has kept Graham from ramping up her 2018 bid: her husband has cancer.
“Every part of me wants to run for governor, that’s what I feel passionate about, that’s what I know I need to do for the state of Florida, but things happen in life that could take me off that path. I hope not,” Graham told Brendan Farrington of The Associated Press.
As for Morgan, he continues to bluster while positioning himself as a Democratic, Florida-sized version of Donald Trump.
“Most politicians go on a B.S. ‘listening tour,’ which is all a joke, I’m going to go on a speaking tour,” Trump recently told Orlando Politics publisher Doug Kaplan. “I have the luxury of telling you exactly what I think. By the time I get done telling everyone what I think, I may be dead by my own words.”
Not knowing what to make of Trump, while seeing Graham held up, and Gillum and Levine not generating much buzz, the time is right for Buckhorn to make his presence felt in the invisible primary of 2018. Maybe he picks a fight with the Legislature. Maybe Gillum starts raising real money for his political committee. Maybe he hires a couple of key staffers.
Something. Anything. Strike while the iron is hot and all that.
Otherwise, the window will close. Graham will lock up the critical establishment support. Levine will muscle his way through the race with his checkbook. And Morgan will take up all of the oxygen in the room.
This past weekend, I ran into Buckhorn at the Gasparilla Children’s Parade. Watching him interact with the crowd and toss beads to throngs of Tampanians and visitors lining Bayshore Boulevard, I was reminded that, among all of the possible candidates mentioned here AND Republicans who may enter the race, Buckhorn is the best retail politician (although there is something to be said for how Graham’s sense of empathy can be felt literally, almost like the heat from a candle).
Buckhorn gains strength from all of the gripping and grinning. He kisses babies. He never turns down a request for a picture. He’ll drink a beer (or two) with a group of parade-goers.
In other words, Buckhorn on the campaign trail would be a force to reckon with.
The only question now is when will he get on the field.