Tampa Mayoral Election 2011: How Bob Buckhorn won

Going into Tuesday's Tampa mayoral election, the strong consensus among political observers was that Bob Buckhorn would beat Rose Ferlita.

But absolutely nobody predicted it would be a blowout, which it was, with Buckhorn crushing his former Tampa City Council colleague by nearly 26 percentage points and nearly 11,000 votes.

Although he'd finished nearly a thousand votes short of Ferlita in the March 1st primary, the momentum began flowing Buckhorn's way shortly afterwards, as he made the most of endorsements from opponents Tom Scott and Ed Turanchik, followed by the imprimatur of all the major newspapers in town.

Endorsements have proven to be overrated in recent years (Alex Sink, anyone?). But one such endorsement that even Ferlita fans admitted hurt was when outgoing mayor Pam Iorio came out on March 11 for Buckhorn, eschewing her previously declared neutral stance in the race.

The endorsement was huge, and Ferlita acknowledged as much on the day it was announced. And on election night, she still spoke bitterly about it. "I'm disappointed in the mayor... I'm surprised at her lack of integrity. We all have to live with our decisions."

The fact of the matter was that Iorio never supported Ferlita's candidacy. The two feuded several times between 2003-2006 when Ferlita was on Council. But it was Ferlita's decided and surprising turn to trash Buckhorn that compelled Iorio to speak out, the mayor said, and her endorsement came at a time when Buckhorn may have been on the ropes, after a Chamber of Commerce poll showed Ferlita ahead.

Ferlita alluded to her campaign's negative turn in her remarks Tuesday night to supporters. "There were some commercials that I didn't feel good about. The style changed. The direction changed. Once I saw what it looked like I felt sick to my stomach."

The commercial in question called Buckhorn a "career politician" and "failed businessman." It also claimed that he had supported a requirement for police officers to keep their guns locked in the trunks of their cars, thus endangering their lives — a claim deemed false by the St. Petersburg Times Politifact team.

Ferlita kept up the attacks the following week when a campaign mailer that was later determined never to have been issued questioned her "unmarried" status. Ferlita then began castigating Buckhorn as being responsible for the ad, and assailed him for insulting not just her but all women.

But even though critics will say Ferlita went down a wrong path in going negative, one of her leading strategists insisted that wasn't the case.

Speaking to CL two days before the election, Anthony Pedicini said flatly that "negative works." The 31-year-old GOP consultant said, "Fear is a much stronger motivator than hope. You have to make people make a choice."

The Ferlita campaign ran hard on two items during the runoff – calling Buckhorn an elitist, and saying he had issues with women. On the elitist charge, Pedicini didn't back off, taking exception to Buckhorn telling CL about "fast-food jobs."

But Buckhorn countered, "I want my mayor to inspire, to elevate, not to encourage people to settle for what's comfortable and mediocre."

The Ferlita camp also charged that Buckhorn's choice of the word "sleazy" in a campaign commercial had, to paraphrase Ferlita backer and former City Council member Mary Alvarez, set back women's rights over the last century. When asked if they had pushed that theme too hard, Pedicini paused before answering, "That's a great question."

One thing on which Pedicini and Buckhorn's campaign staff agreed is that Buckhorn was a great candidate, always staying on message and never rising to their bait.

When asked about that on election night, Buckhorn smiled and said, "I kept my Irish in my pocket, lad."

Siobhan Harley, 23, signed up with Buckhorn as a top aide last May, when nobody gave the 52-year-old former city councilman much of a chance. (Buckhorn brought her up on stage during Tuesday night's victory celebration at Channelside, announcing that the Scottish native would the next day become an American citizen.) Of her candidate, Harley says, "He knows his stuff, he's been doing this for so long."

And that he had been. After losing out to Iorio and Frank Sanchez in the 2003 mayor's race, Buckhorn lost again to Brian Blair for county commission in 2004, and told some reporters that he would no longer run for office. But the yearning to lead Tampa never went away, as he bided his time consulting and giving political commentary, proving to be one of the best analysts of local and national politics, always great with a sound bite.

So with a little luck (such as former Congressman Jim Davis deciding in November not to run) and a lot of sweat equity, Buckhorn outworked everyone, with him or his staff (or Tampa firefighters) knocking on more than 25,000 doors before election.

Andrew Lawrence, 31, began working for Buckhorn after being part of Alex Sink's campaign last fall. Acknowledging that Buckhorn finished just 384 votes ahead of Dick Greco to make the runoff, he said, "Everybody can kind of point to a door they knocked on, a neighborhood that they went to that they can say made a difference."

Buckhorn was his own campaign manager, which some on his staff were dubious about. But, as Christian Marble says, "I've never seen anyone with more of a grasp of urban public policy. He really knows his stuff and he's a very disciplined speaker."

So now the man who was a top assistant to the mayor of Tampa when he was just 28 years old is the new mayor at 52. He's wanted this a long time. The whole city can only hope that he will be as dynamic in office as he has been the past four months on the stump.

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