TAMPA ญญ— On the morning after Democrats suffered a narrow but crushing defeat in the Florida governor's race, many were already talking about where the party should turn for a candidate to lead them back to power in Tallahassee.
Among the names was Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
At an apartment tower groundbreaking Wednesday morning, Buckhorn didn't say he plans to run, but dropped some hints, and said a big-city mayor is where the party should look for a candidate.
“There will be an open seat in four years – I'm just sayin', I'm just sayin,” he joked.
Buckhorn has long been expected to consider a run for higher office.
“You're going to see that bench emerge out of the mayors that have served as CEOs,” he said in an interview later. “That would give us a far more competitive field, more focused on results and with a track record.”
Right now, Buckhorn said, he doesn't know whether he'll be interested in the 2018 race.
“I am absolutely focused on my re-election this spring and finishing the progress we've made,” he said. “If I don't do my job I have no future.”
As Buckhorn noted, he is just one member of that group of Democratic big-city Florida mayors. Besides Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, they include Jack Seiler of Fort Lauderdale, Alvin Brown of Jacksonville, Buddy Dyer of Orlando and Phil Levine of Miami Beach.
“I would agree that in the next election cycle one of the Democratic big-city mayors would be a very viable candidate,” said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who said he had 10 phone calls Wednesday morning from supporters urging him to consider running in 2018.
Dyer said all those mayors will be in mid-term in 2018 if they survive re-elections, and that under laws passed to help then Gov. Charlie Crist in his quest to be John McCain's 2008 presidential running mate, they wouldn't have to resign their offices to run for governor.
Kriseman ruled out any interest in 2018.
“I've been to Tallahassee for six years. I've had enough,” said Kriseman, a former state House member.
“I agree that the Democratic big-city mayors are the guys who are getting things done, so they're natural potential candidates, but I'm not. I'm a year into my job ... if voters are inclined to bless me with a second term I feel I've got a lot to get done – that's all I'm interested in.”
Veteran Democratic political strategist Ana Cruz of Tampa, a Buckhorn ally, seconded the idea of Buckhorn or another mayor as the party's next gubernatorial standard-bearer.
“He has methodically changed our city and how we feel about ourselves,” Cruz said. “That's what mayors are supposed to do. People didn't feel good about voting for Charlie Crist or Rick Scott. They just held their nose and voted. It wouldn't be like that with Bob Buckhorn.”
Mitch Ceasar of Fort Lauderdale, chairman of the Democratic Party in Broward County, the state's biggest Democratic County, said he agrees the party should look more toward its mayors than it has in the past.
“There's never been an attempt to encourage them” to run for state office, he said. “It's a path we've always talked about but done little to encourage. The old dynamic of always wanting former or current legislators is changing,”
Ceasar said he doesn't know whether Fort Lauderdale Mayor Seiler would be interested.
Mayors face an obstacle to becoming candidates for state office: Their city offices are non-partisan and they have to work with citizens and businesspeople regardless of party. That doesn't help develop the party ties that help win primary elections.
Dyer said all the mayors except Kriseman stayed neutral in the Crist-Scott race.
Buckhorn, for example, never backed Crist publicly. During the campaign he appeared with Scott and praised him at Governor's Office events touting state largesse toward Tampa.
Kriseman, in contrast, committed firmly to Crist, even appearing at Crist's candidacy announcement Nov. 4, 2013, the day before Kriseman was on the city election ballot. He noted that Scott later vetoed a $1.6 million education and job training program for economically depressed South St. Petersburg that was put in the budget by Republican legislative leaders.
But Buckhorn said a non-partisan image can appeal to voters.
“People are looking for someone who can move beyond politics and get things done,” he said at the groundbreaking on Wednesday. “It's time to get about the business of actually getting things done and stop complaining about who's a Democrat and who's a Republican, who's shady and who flip flopped.
“I don't have to deal with any of that nonsense — at least — yet,” he added.
Buckhorn said he'd have serious family concerns if he ran for governor — a daughter entering college in four years, another entering high school, and his wife, who has “a thriving medical practice that would be difficult to uproot and move.”
He bemoaned the cost of running a campaign, but added, “I still have my boots” — a reference to the footwear he wore when he knocked on 20,000 doors while running for mayor of Tampa.
Staff writer Richard Mullins contributed to this report.