The E Word: Tired rhetoric, true leadership and why I'm endorsing Bob Buckhorn.

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It was all going so well — a mayor's race between qualified competitors, marked by mutual respect and cordial agreements to disagree. Once Rose Ferlita finally got around to revealing a detailed plan for her administration — many, many weeks after her opponent, Bob Buckhorn — the race threatened to offer voters a real choice, a chance to compare two candidates' differing approaches to government.

Then it got nasty. I was blessedly away on vacation when the whole flap arose about a flyer that no one wanted to take responsibility for, but the two camps had already been trading charges and counter-charges about "sleazy" campaigning before that. Mayor Pam Iorio even based her endorsement of Buckhorn on the trend, saying, "The negative turn of the campaign by Bob's opponent causes me great concern."

Like most observers, I've listened to all this he-said/she-said with resignation — OK, we're back to politics as usual. But I've been most disappointed at hearing one candidate throw around a phrase that's become all too familiar — Ferlita's tiresome accusation that Buckhorn is a big-government "elitist."

Please. Is that all you got, Rose?

The charge is tiresome not just because, like the dreaded "Liberal" tag, it's a standard-issue Republican scare tactic.

It's also tiresome because it's not valid.

Bob Buckhorn is as much a big-government elitist as Rose Ferlita. He's a conservative Democrat; Ferlita's a moderate Republican. They're more alike than different. But as we've seen all too often in this fractious Tea Party-fueled political climate, Republicans will deploy terms like "elitist" and "liberal" whenever it suits them, even against members of their own party, so it's no surprise that it's surfaced again in this ostensibly non-partisan race.

But I guess I'd hoped for something more original from Ferlita. Her apparent independent spirit has always been a chief source of her appeal. She's not a doctrinaire Rick Scott type; in fact, her fight for a drug monitoring system, which Scott opposes, and her support (albeit tepid) for high-speed rail suggested she wouldn't be marching in lockstep with the governor's policies.

However, her willingness to tap into the usual Tea Party tropes suggests that, for her, winning is the most important thing. And don't you think that Scott and company will tout such a win, in a city long run by Democratic mayors, as a victory for their agenda? And don't you think they'd trot out their new Republican mayor during the Republican National Convention here in 2012? Is this what Tampa voters want to see — our mayoral race as a victory lap for the Tea Party?

Well, I don't. And beyond that, beyond the party rhetoric, there are many other reasons why Bob Buckhorn is a better candidate for mayor than Rose Ferlita.

Let's look at the shape of their campaigns. It may appear to some that Ferlita's long wait to reveal detailed plans for the city was a brilliant maneuver, a way for her to save her ammo till the end. But it suggests to me a fundamental difference between the two; where Buckhorn's statement of vision for Tampa is pro-active, a call to the future grounded on in-depth analysis of the past, Ferlita's platform comes across as re-active: this is what Buckhorn will do, here's how I would do it differently. There's a differing level of courage here; Ferlita seems the calculating politician, Buckhorn the candidate willing to stake a claim and defend it.

And that's how their visions of the city differ, too. Buckhorn, in a combination of broad strokes and specific programming ideas, sees the big picture, envisioning new possibilities for Tampa based on research into successful urban areas around the country. Ferlita clearly knows her way around municipal government, having spent so many years on Council and on County Commission, and her commitment to small business is real and admirable, drawing on her own experience as a pharmacist. But where her public persona can be fierce, her plans suggest a willingness to accept the status quo, a timidity about changing too much.

Arguably, in Buckhorn's willingness to change government, to add deputy mayors that oversee vital new areas of opportunity for the city, he will encounter challenges, both financial and bureaucratic. Ferlita says his plans will add layers of bureaucracy; he says he will streamline other areas in the process of restructuring. Meanwhile, Ferlita points to existing programs; she says they just need to work better.

But which of these two candidates can meet their own goals the best? Which of them will be able to lead us in the direction they've set? You can get a hint by looking at their websites (Ferlita having said that improvements in the city's website will be key to attracting new businesses). Buckhorn's is easily navigable, its major points easy to follow, the explanations easy to find. Ferlita's "Bold Building Blocks" plan looks well-organized, but proves to be clunky, filled with redundancies, bogged down in minutiae and, despite its emphasis on transparency, is less clear, less contemporary than her opponent's.

Or look at their style on the stump. Ferlita's best moment so far was on Election Night, when she made a vigorous acceptance/campaign speech upon being the night's top vote-getter. In debates, she's proven less adept, saying little of substance. Buckhorn by contrast has been impressive throughout, even unexpectedly so — maintaining his composure and his eloquence under fire, with a confidence that suggests he knows where he wants to take the city and has the passion to do it.

I like much about Rose Ferlita — her common sense, her empathy for her fellow citizens. But in looking at the two candidates and comparing their leadership ability, vision and political smarts, there's no question in my mind that the best choice for mayor of Tampa in this election is Bob Buckhorn.

I hope you'll agree.

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