TAMPA — When Jane Castor strode into the gym at the Wayne C. Papy Athletic Center, a line of young heads turned in unison, wide-eyed to see the city's new mayor appear at their gymnastics practice on a Friday afternoon.
Castor didn't miss a step, hopping up on a low balance beam — in heels, no less — showcasing the athletic prowess that put her in the University of Tampa's athletic Hall of Fame as a hoops star nearly four decades ago.
It's hard not to see the political metaphor. Elected in a landslide, feted by presidential candidates and certified as a rising, albeit late-blooming, political star, Castor now has to prove herself in the messy world of city government. First up, balancing competing interests.
She must identify winners and losers in the more than $1-billion budget due to City Council by Aug. 1. Meanwhile, all three city unions have their contracts up for renewal this year. Castor will need every bit of the surefootedness she displayed last week on that beam.
The mayor's visit to the Seminole Heights recreational center was part of a tour of city departments and facilities Castor has been immersed in since taking office May 1. The briefings have been long and intense, and taught her that even a 31-year career in the police department doesn't prepare someone for "every little intimate detail of every single department," she said.
Castor is now versed in how the city's wastewater department repairs damaged pipes, for instance, but she is starting to chafe a bit, craving action.
"I'm eager to implement some plans instead of being briefed," she said.
Castor has made a few early moves. She's keeping Ashley Bauman as her communications director. And Bauman has been busy plumping the mayor's new Twitter (@JaneCastor) and Facebook feeds.
On Friday a city photographer and videographer accompanied Castor on her visit to the dance and gymnastics classes. Sure enough, her Twitter feed was soon replenished, a sign that former mayor Bob Buckhorn's ubiquity on social media will continue under his successor.
She also recently hired a New York City political veteran and University of South Florida administrator, Carole Wallace Post, to spearhead her transition. But there hasn't been much movement yet.
Key City Hall players like Chief Financial Officer Sonya Little, Economic Opportunity Administrator Bob McDonaugh and Public Works and Utility Services Adminstrator Brad Baird are still in place. As are Police Chief Brian Dugan and Fire Chief Nick LoCicero.
Little recently announced the city has a preliminary $3.7 million surplus heading into budget season. Castor was largely mum on the fatter surplus, but did say she would like to replenish the city's $100 million reserve fund, which remains considerably smaller than when former mayor Pam Iorio left office in 2011.
"Buckhorn must have sent a thank-you note to Iorio every budget cycle," Castor said.
She had less to say about the union negotiations, which have not begun. And she seemed uninterested in sparring with new council members like John Dingfelder, Orlando Gudes and Bill Carlson, who have shown early signs of bucking mayoral authority by pulling routine items off the consent agenda to drive home points about affordable housing and minority business contracts.
Council members have also floated a revamp of the city's Community Redevelopment Areas.
"I'll let Luis handle that," she said of council chairman Luis Viera, saying she doesn't see the early moves as a challenge to her strong mayor powers. "I think we’ll have a good working relationship. It’s in the best interest of the city and what we were all elected to do."
Dingfelder said he has a good relationship with Castor dating from when he was a council member from 2003 to 2010 and she was a high-ranking police official. But he was disappointed in a May 6 memo from chief of staff Dennis Rogero that instructed council members to route all communications and questions for city staff through the mayor's office. The policy was later clarified to exclude constituent matters, but Dingfelder remains unsatisfied.
"It's a little irksome and cumbersome, it slows down the process," he said, adding he plans to bring the issue up with Castor when they sit down for a one-on-one meeting soon.
Meanwhile, the city’s 4,300 employees are waiting and watching. Tampa fire union president Joe Greco, whose union endorsed Castor, said he's optimistic and thought her showing up at the scene of a weekend stabbing of a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit bus driver showed the right instincts. But it's still early, he said.
"There's not much to say right now," Greco said.
Early signs show a mayor who is much like the candidate: cautious, disciplined and good at making difficult balancing acts look natural.
As a group of young gymnasts gathered around Castor for a photo Friday, Bauman playfully asked them to "strike a pose." The girls immediately complied with dramatic flair.
"Mayor Castor, you have to do it, too," implored Bauman.
"Yeah, right," Castor deadpanned.