Former Police Chief Jane Castor rolled to an easy victory Tuesday in Tampa’s mayoral runoff, making history as the city's first openly gay mayor.
Her election ensures what essentially will be a four-year extension of policies promulgated by her predecessor, Bob Buckhorn.
With 98 of 103 precincts reporting, Castor, 59, crushed billionaire David Straz, 72.8 percent to 27.2 percent. Five precincts were unable to transmit results but the delay had no effect on the result.
What supporters and skeptics will watch in a Castor administration: relations between the black community and law enforcement; whether the new mayor extricates herself from under Buckhorn’s giant shadow; implementation of cutting-edge transportation policies; and the influence of special interests and profiteers in zoning matters, eminent domain and the awarding of city contracts.
The election result was never in doubt from the moment the campaign began in earnest on the day following the 2018 midterms. Unqualified support from popular incumbent Buckhorn, being the only female in a seven-candidate field, and an enthusiastic force of city workers and their families provided Castor’s edge out of the gate.
The public’s view of her six opponents, including two city councilmen and a former county commissioner, was as blurry as an Ybor pub crawl at 3 a.m. None could distinguish themselves sufficiently to mount a formidable challenge against the front-running Castor. In what seemed to be an endless series of public forums sponsored by various local special interest groups, no candidate emerged with innovative policy proposals that caught fire with the public.
Polling from start to finish reflected Castor’s commanding lead, with Straz running a distant second.
The formulaic public appearances, numbering in the teens, became sleep inducing. The Big Yawn, reflected by voter turnout, was exacerbated by a cast that collectively projected less charm and charisma than an ISIS beheading video.
In the March 5 primary, Castor nearly won the mayoralty race outright by grabbing 48 percent of the vote. Straz, by virtue of his obscene campaign spending, limped into the runner-up position with 15.5 percent.
Between what was reported to the Hillsborough County supervisor of elections and his PAC, the basically self-funded Straz spent in excess of $5 million from the moment he announced an exploratory committee 18 months ago. He was the weakest possible opponent for Castor to draw in the runoff; he clearly never grasped the issues and droned rehearsed answers at every forum.
Straz attacked Castor on two fronts: fudged crime statistics and the dubious, anti-public interest relationship between Buckhorn and developer Jeff Vinik. Without specifics to support the claims, the issues never gained much traction.
Besides Castor, other big winners were Straz campaign operatives and entities paid to endorse him. Fletcher Ridge & Company, Nashville, and Momentum Strategy Group, Brandon, strategized the dismal effort that surely will not be trumpeted on their websites or resumés. “How Not to Win An Election for Dummies” is a more likely destination.
But the pair of political consulting groups collected hundreds of thousands of dollars to ameliorate the ugly stain. At the lower end of the Straz financial chain were expenditures for pizza joints and tee-shirt shops.
The election, though technically nonpartisan, was a frustrating one for both the Hillsborough County Republican Party and local progressives. Both Straz and Castor were registered Republicans until they decided to seek the mayorship in a city where Democrats hold sway. When he announced, Straz freely admitted to voting for Donald Trump, but that “it was a mistake.”
Castor’s partner, Ana Cruz, is managing partner in the Tampa office of Ballard Partners, a lobbying firm with close ties to the president.
A prominent Republican loyalist lamented what he termed “misplaced emphasis” on party labels in a nonpartisan race. The Hillsborough GOP apparatus, he said, needs to do a better job of registering voters, candidate recruitment, and debunking the supposition that being a Republican within Tampa city limits is a liability.
Progressives also had a dilemma. The local progressive caucus got behind term-limited City Councilman Harry Cohen who finished third in the primary. In truth, though, none of the seven original candidates fit the progressive mold.
Castor did not serve as police chief without controversy, including racial targeting which garnered national attention. The U.S. Department of Justice deemed the Buckhorn-Castor “biking while black” policy was unintentional but told Tampa to knock it off. Castor was slow to apologize but eventually did.
And the cop cum mayor is expected to continue the city’s unpopular red light cameras instituted by Buckhorn. Every credible study of such programs assert they do not increase safety and are mostly a windfall for companies that operate the camera systems.
Castor, Tampa’s 59th mayor, will be sworn in May 1.
Jim Bleyer, a former reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and Tampa Tribune, writes the Tampa Bay Beat blog.