- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn isn’t going to lose much sleep over the threat of violent protesters marring the Republican National Convention in his city next month. After all, dealing with annual invasions by pirates and Mother Nature have battle-hardened this city for big-time events.

Throw in the experience of the Florida Gulf Coast city hosting multiple Super Bowls and Mr. Buckhorn says he’s “ready to blow the whistle” to start next month’s convention.

“We’re as well prepared as can be,” Mr. Buckhorn said during a Wednesday interview with The Washington Times. “I don’t know what else we can do to get ready.”

The Gasparilla Pirate Festival, a rowdy Mardi Gras-style annual event in which local civic and business leaders dress up like pirates and “invade” the city to the delight of hundreds of thousands of revelers, has helped hone the city’s event-planning skills.

And while a hurricane hasn’t directly hit Tampa since the first half of the 20th century, major storms routinely skirt the area, keeping local emergency officials and first-responders on their toes.

“We do hurricane training all-year round. We look at this as no different,” Mr. Buckhorn said. “The structure is already in place for how to deal with large events like this, for how to deal with evacuations, how to deal with command and control, how you deal with communication — that’s already institutionalized with what we do because of the hurricanes.”

The mayor said the possibility of a hurricane wreaking havoc on the Aug. 27-30 convention was “infinitesimal,” putting the odds of a direct hit at a fraction of one percent.

The group Anonymous, a loose association of Internet hackers, reportedly has threatened to stage protests during the convention week. But the mayor says he’s confident local officials will handle any disturbances from the group or others.

“I’d prefer it not to come, and I’m pretty certain there could be circumstances that could be combustive — that’s just the nature of these events,” he said. “More important than the fact that they do occur is how we deal with it. And that I’m very comfortable with.”

About 4,000 law enforcement will patrol the event — most of whom will come from outside the city and county, representing 30 to 40 agencies. To ensure conformity among the law enforcement team, all officers regardless of agency will wear matching khaki uniforms during the convention.

The entire law enforcement contingent also will use a single radio system, a practice the mayor said wasn’t employed during the 2008 GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., where communication problems hindered police efforts to contain violent protesters.

Outdoor closed-circuit video cameras will be in use throughout the downtown area where the convention will he held, though Mr. Buckhorn denied rumors the city’s security plans included unmanned drone aircraft.

And if crowd-control attempts get messy, the mayor vows not to hide in his office or the command center, saying he’s “going down to the barricades and mix it up.”

“I will be wherever our people are. And if it means being out on the street I’ll be out on the street,” he said.

Mr. Buckhorn, a Democrat, says it makes no difference to him which party hosts the convention in his city, though he says he’s taken some good-natured ribbing from friends and acquaintance of both parties.

“Our mission is to be the best host [the GOP] has ever had,” he said. “For me, it’s not about the partisan nature of it — it’s an economic development opportunity, and that’s how I treat it. I don’t care what goes on in the [convention] building.”

And while he says he would be open to helping President Obama’s re-election campaign after the convention, “in terms of partisan politics I’m agnostic for the next 40 days.”

Despite the headaches that come with hosting a major political party convention, Mr. Buckhorn says the benefits far outweigh the negatives, adding the buzz around the city leading up to the event is “20 times” that of the city’s four Super Bowls combined.

“I want my city to shine, and I want to compete with the best cities out there and stand amongst them, so this is the way we do it,” he said. “I’ve got the eye-black on and I’m just waiting to get in. Let me play.”