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Buckhorn wary of bidding for Democratic convention

By William March
Published: February 27, 2014 Updated: February 27, 2014 at 08:44 PM
Tampa is one of dozens of U.S. cities that have been invited to submit bids to host the 2016 Democratic National Convention, according to a high-ranking Florida Democratic official.

TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat and Tampa’s main booster during the city’s hosting of the Republican National Convention in 2012, showed reluctance Thursday to jump on an invitation from his own party to host its nomination convention in 2016.

The reason: Possible restrictions on local fund raising and the Democratic Party’s preference for unionized hotels, scarce in Tampa.

Corporate money figured heavily in the $50 million raised by the Tampa host committee to help pay for the RNC, but corporate money was prohibited in the rules for the Democratic convention that year — causing significant financial problems for the host committee in Charlotte, N.C.

“I would love to be the mayor that hosted the Democratic National Convention, but I’ve got to put my fiscal hat on before I put my political hat on,” Buckhorn said Thursday.

“I don’t want to be in a position of committing to perform as well as we performed last time with one hand tied behind my back. The Democratic infrastructure is not nearly what it needs to be to host that kind of event.”

Buckhorn also said the new bidding rules require unionization at the DNC headquarters hotel, and neither of the Tampa Convention Center hotels — the Marriott Waterside and the Embassy Suites — has union representation.

Whether Buckhorn’s rationale applies for 2016, however, remains an open question.

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Tampa, Miami and 28 other cities received invitations to apply for the hosting honors in letters from U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Weston, who’s also chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

The letter included nine pages of attachments listing the basic requirements.

It doesn’t mention prohibiting corporate contributions. And it calls a union hotel a “priority,” not a requirement.

Still, Buckhorn said, “The way I read it, it is.”

The corporate contribution prohibition in 2012, the first time it’s been applied, came from President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, and he won’t be running in 2016.

Nonetheless, said Buckhorn spokeswoman Ali Glisson, “The bottom line is that we cannot assume that they will change the requirement.”

Wasserman-Schultz couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.

Two invited cities, Portland and St. Louis, have already said they’ll pass on the bidding because of money worries, according to news reports from those cities.

But local Democratic fundraiser Justin Day said he doesn’t think money concerns should stop Tampa.

“I have no doubt the Democrats would do just as well” as Republicans did in 2012, Day said. “I think the mayor would come around and support the idea. I think the money would come.”

Santiago Corrada, president and chief executive officer of Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County’s visitors bureau, was more equivocal.

“The mayor received a letter inviting the city to bid,” Corrada said. “But obviously a lot of things need to be in place to engage in such a bid.

“It takes city and county support. You need private financing. If we get in it, we get in it to win.”

Corrada previously served as Buckhorn’s chief of staff and head of the Tampa Bay Convention Center. He was the city of Tampa’s key representative in securing the public and private partnerships that helped bring the Republican National Convention to Tampa.

Tampa’s two best qualifications, political insiders said Thursday, are its success in 2014 and its status as anchor of the Interstate 4 corridor in Florida, the crucial hinge of the nation’s biggest presidential swing state.

“I think we’re on the list because Debbie Wasserman-Schultz comes from Florida and because we just proved we could do it,” said former Mayor Sandy Freedman, who’s now involved in the movement to recruit Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party’s next presidential nominee.

Still, the invitation could have been issued just to generate good will, she said.

“They probably want us to feel good. Just inviting a city to apply can pick you up a few votes there.”

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The competition, even in Florida, would be stiff.

Miami, a bigger town, has more resort centers and hotel rooms. One of the few complaints among 2014 Tampa attendees was long commutes downtown from outlying hotels.

Columbus, Ohio, meanwhile, has mounted an aggressive drive to be host, and already has a bipartisan committee and a proposal before the Democratic National Committee staff, said Alan Clendenin of Tampa, vice chairman of the state Democratic Party and a member of the Democratic National Committee.

Democratic insiders said the decision will be made on available lodging, transportation and security; political calculations including where the party wants to generate news coverage; and the wishes of the candidate.

In 2016, the best bet now is that the candidate will be Hillary Clinton. Hillary and former President Bill Clinton both have strong ties to Tampa, but probably stronger ties to Miami.

The Tampa area includes several high-level Republican fundraisers like Al Austin, who led the drive for the 2014 convention, but comparatively few high-level Democratic financial powers.

Miami, on the other hand, is one of the top fundraising areas for national Democratic candidates, with half a dozen or so powerful financial “bundlers” close to the Clintons.

“They’re down here frequently. They’re not strangers,” said Chris Korge, a Miami developer and long-time fundraiser for both Clintons, who was co-chairman of the city’s unsuccessful application to host both party conventions in 2004.

Hillary Clinton spoke at the University of Miami on Wednesday, and Korge played golf three weeks ago in Boca Raton with Bill Clinton, who was in town to give a speech.

Korge said he doesn’t want to repeat his role in applying to be the host city, but said, “If Miami got an invitation, I can’t imagine they won’t put in a bid.”

Spokesmen for the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County government didn’t return calls for comment Thursday on whether they’ll apply.

Still, Freedman said both Clintons have affection for Tampa.

In 1992, after announcing his candidacy for president, Clinton’s first campaign stop was a Tampa elementary school serving a large numbers of low-income families, Alexander Elementary, she said.

Both Clintons have campaigned here frequently since.

Staff writers Ted Jackovics, Kevin Wiatrowski and Mike Salinero contributed to this report.

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