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For Tampa Bay and nation, a decade polarized by politics

Over the past 10 years, the metro area reflected the nation with a growing urban-rural divide, where the region’s cities grew bluer and its suburban and agrarian exurbs turned red.

Editor’s note: This story is part of “A Decade Defined By,” a series that examines how Tampa Bay has changed in the past decade. We will publish one story a day until Dec. 31. Read the whole package here.

Donald Trump wasn’t on the ballot in 2017. But in the St. Petersburg mayoral race, he might as well have been.

Mayor Rick Kriseman bet Democrats wouldn’t want a Trump acolyte in charge of their progressive paradise and his campaign tried to hang the president around the neck of his Republican opponent, Rick Baker, whether it fit or not. The gambit nationalized what was ostensibly a nonpartisan municipal race — and it worked. Kriseman won.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, left, and his wife Kerry while he was being sworn in for his second term outside City Hall on Jan. 2, 2018. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

The episode reflected the shifting political winds in Tampa Bay and the country. The last decade has challenged the adage made famous by Tip O’Neill. All politics is local? Nay, all politics is national, and everyone must choose sides.

As it has elsewhere, this has manifested itself most prominently in an urban-rural divide, with the region’s cities growing bluer and its suburban and agrarian exurbs turning red.

Kriseman first won in 2013 after 12 years of Republican rule of City Hall while Democrat Charlie Crist in 2016 wrested St. Petersburg’s congressional seat from Republican David Jolly in the most expensive, partisan fight this area had ever seen.

Across the bay, Republicans entered the decade in decisive control of the Hillsborough County Commission, which they wielded to effectuate a conservative social agenda. Yet as the county urbanized, the commission would come to support Tampa’s Pride parade and remove a Confederate monument. The 2010s end with Democrats in charge.

Meanwhile, blue dog Democrats are a dying breed in Pasco and Hernando counties, where Republicans now pull the levers of power. Republican registration there is booming while Democrats are falling in numbers.

Is this partisan and regional divide tenable? One factor may indicate it’s not. The fastest-growing political affiliation in Tampa Bay and Florida — by far among new registrants — is no party at all.

Five big Tampa Bay political moments, 2010-2019

Mitt Romney accepts Republican nomination for president in Tampa.

Hurricane Issac threatened to shut down the Republican National Convention in 2012, but the show went on with only a few glitches (and a bizarre Clint Eastwood appearance with a chair). It was Tampa’s moment in the national spotlight, and the city delivered. Romney, though, went on to lose Florida (and the election) to President Barack Obama.

Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters at the Sanford International Airport on the last day of campaigning before the 2012 general election. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times (2012) ]

C.W. Bill Young dies.

For more than four decades, the St. Petersburg congressman championed the Tampa Bay region in Washington. He died on Oct. 18, 2013, from complications due to a broken hip as the country’s longest-serving member of Congress.

At graveside, Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos comforts Beverly Young, the widow of Congressman C.W. Bill Young, after giving her the flag that covered his coffin at Bay Pines National Cemetery. [ Times 2013 ]

Charlie Crist switches parties.

Trailing in his 2010 Senate race to an up-and-coming Marco Rubio, Crist decided to leave the GOP and run as an independent. He lost, but two years later, Crist endorsed Obama’s re-election and then tried to run for governor again, this time as a Democrat. He’d lose that race too, before winning the St. Pete congressional seat once held by Young.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, greets veterans during the Veterans Day ceremony at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center and National Cemetery at Bay Pines on Nov. 11 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Tampa elects Jane Castor, its first openly gay mayor.

In a city where Pride parades were once banned, Castor coasted to victory in 2019 and became the only lesbian to become mayor of a major city in the Southeast.

Rail takes a beating.

Voters in Hillsborough and Pinellas County each rejected attempts to raise the sales tax that could’ve brought rail to the region. So could have a federally funded high-speed line, before then-Gov. Rick Scott killed it upon taking office in 2011. But a Tampa to Orlando train is in the works and Hillsborough voters in 2018 passed a new transportation tax. Could the next decade end differently?