TAMPA — If you plan to run for mayor of Tampa in March, now is the time to lay the groundwork.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn is doing just that, but there are no signs anybody else is.
How thin is the field? At one point, radio shock jock <b>Bubba the Love Sponge Clem</b> said he might challenge Buckhorn.
"I'd love to get in some debates with him," Clem said in January. No surprise there: Buckhorn once called Clem a "complete moron" in an email that later became public.
But despite vowing to "make it my mission to destroy" Buckhorn, Clem did not follow through by registering to vote in Tampa at least a year before the next mayoral term starts in April, as is required by the city charter. And beyond Bubba?
"I haven't heard anyone talking about it," former Mayor Dick Greco said. "Bob's doing a good job. He's everywhere. A lot of good things are happening. … Unless you have a number of things that people are dissatisfied about, it's not easy to run against an incumbent." Tampa's strong mayor form of government gives first-term mayors wide latitude to set the city's agenda and reinforce their already high name recognition. Typically, they do just that.
Tampa's last four mayors all won second terms with ease. Pam Iorio won 79 percent of the vote. Greco was unopposed. Sandra Freedman turned back a challenge from a City Council member with 71 percent of the vote. Bob Martinez was re-elected with 80 percent of the vote. Ask around about potential challengers to Buckhorn, and one name that comes up is Stephanie Agliano, the former director of community affairs for Tampa Electric.
About a month after Buckhorn took office, Tampa's La Gaceta weekly tabloid speculated that Agliano's departure from her Tampa Electric job might have had something to do with her support for former County Commissioner Rose Ferlita, whom Buckhorn defeated in the mayoral runoff in 2011. It didn't, Agliano said. Her retirement was not politically driven, she said, and she continues to work with the utility through a consulting firm she runs. While flattered to be mentioned, she has no plans to challenge Buckhorn.
"My father was smart," Agliano said. "Better to be a kingmaker than a king."Buckhorn said he first wants to take care of the city budget, which he will submit to the City Council on July 24, but plans to launch a re-election campaign later this summer." I will prepare as if there were 10 people running," he said. "We'll prepare for anybody who chooses to put their hat in the ring. I'm not going to be running against them. I'm running to finish my job."
The way Buckhorn runs City Hall gives him plenty of practice for campaigning, with a regular schedule of ribbon-cuttings, project kickoffs and other public appearances. A media-savvy politician — his father was a long-time wire service reporter; his brother shoots video at the White House for CNN — Buckhorn stays in the public eye by being accessible to reporters and having a knack for the memorable quote (see: the Rays baseball stadium debate, when he once famously told then-St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, "I'm not going to be the boyfriend in your divorce.")
And his annual state-of-the-city speeches not only highlight their settings (Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, the historic Kress building, the old Tampa trolley barn), but have a campaign rally feel, with inspirational videos and stadium-rock anthems by U2 and Bruce Springsteen setting the mood. This is no coincidence. Like Buckhorn himself, his public affairs director, Ali Glisson, comes from a political background, and City Hall's events and public statements consistently hit Buckhorn's favorite themes.
Those themes — let's change Tampa's "economic DNA" by making City Hall more business-friendly, let's make the river the center of downtown and let's attract smart young professionals — carried over from his campaign to his administration, and will carry back to the campaign again. When he talks about why he wants a second term, Buckhorn said Tampa has made progress and is getting close to a tipping point.
"I've got a lot that I want to finish," he said. "We're on the verge of something really, really special here, and I'd like to see it to fruition." While someone with high name recognition could wait longer, La Gaceta publisher and political consultant Patrick Manteiga said most candidates can't wait much beyond September to get started. And in any case, it won't be easy. "No matter what you do, it's going to be hard to raise money against Bob Buckhorn," Manteiga said. "The only people who would contribute would be those who are not happy with him and want him to know it." There are people who are not happy with Buckhorn? "There's not a lot who would want him to know it," Manteiga said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Richard Danielson