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Jane Castor’s historic win captures national spotlight and positions her as Democrats’ ‘rising star’

Tampa elected its first gay mayor and the political world swiftly reacted. Is Castor ready for the pressure?
Jane Castor made her first national television appearance as Tampa's mayor-elect Wednesday when she appeared on MSNBC. [Photo courtesy of MSNBC].
Published Apr. 24
Updated Apr. 25

TAMPA — After a sound sleep, Jane Castor started her first day as Tampa’s mayor-elect with too many text messages and voicemails to get through before the media interviews began.

Odds are those congratulatory messages have a theme: A political star is born.

A race hardly on the radar of most Americans before Tuesday night was national news by Wednesday morning as outlets across the country touted her groundbreaking election. CNN and the Huffington Post featured her. Activists across the country celebrated as LGBTQ publications like the Washington Blade amplified her backstory.

She was a “Twitter Moment.”

Seemingly overnight, Castor, 59, has an enviable political profile: winner in a landslide, former police chief, mother of two and popular well-known figure in the third-largest city in a crucial swing state. Not to mention a history maker as the first out mayor in Tampa Bay history.

ELECTION NIGHT: Jane Castor wins big in Tampa mayor’s race

LIVE BLOG: Get the latest updates on the Tampa mayoral and City Council races.

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Her 73-27 percentage-point margin pasting of retired banker David Straz even made it onto the radar of several Democratic presidential candidates. New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttgieg called her Tuesday night to offer their congrats.

If she’s feeling any pressure, she isn’t letting on.

“I don’t see that there is or will be pressure,” she said when asked about being a political and LGBTQ poster child. “You know, the topic (of her sexual orientation) never came up during the campaign. I think that says a great deal and, hopefully, that will resonate throughout the nation. That people just want a leader that has the qualifications and addresses the issues that are important to them.”

LGBTQ advocates think it’s a very big deal and have said as much repeatedly. After all, same-sex couples couldn’t marry until 2015 in Tampa. And until 2013, Hillsborough County wouldn’t allow the city of Tampa to even acknowledge Pride.

Castor’s easy win was especially welcomed by Florida Democrats, still reeling from last year’s narrow but devastating defeats in the races for governor and U.S. Senate. State party officials sent a mass email claiming victory, though they were hardly involved (nor were they needed) and the election was technically nonpartisan.

State Democratic Party chairwoman Terrie Rizzo called Castor “a rising star.”

“Oh, my gosh. Seriously. There’s some pressure,” Castor quipped dryly about Rizzo’s comment. “My first responsibility is to the city of Tampa and its residents and that will be my focus.”

Castor’s overnight elevation probably says as much about the Democratic Party’s bench in the Sunshine State as it does about her long-term political prospects. Castor is more a late bloomer politically than your typical fresh face. She was a registered Republican until June 2015.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, himself the Democratic leader of a thriving city, said the hype was a “little premature,” but added: “There’s a lot of excitement around her election.”

Reggie Cardozo, political director of President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign in Florida, said Castor’s victory is welcome, but they’ll have to look elsewhere for a game-changer.

“I don’t want to take anything away from Jane Castor. She had a resounding win,” Cardozo said. “But in terms of being a leader of the Democratic Party, maybe (Rizzo) is implying Jane is someone who should be a leader in the party, and I don’t disagree with that.”

Democrats leaned heavily on outgoing Mayor Bob Buckhorn to help campaign for presidential candidates in 2012, 2016 and last year’s governor’s race. He could carry a room, regardless of the audience, Cardozo said, even black churches.

That won’t be expected of Castor. But, Cardozo said, “because of her victory she’s getting some national press. Is there a world where the party can use her to promote their message? Yes, they can.”

To that point, on Wednesday, Castor appeared on MSNBC where she navigated questions about national politics.

Asked by host Ali Velshi about sanctuary cities, a topic that surfaced periodically during her mayoral campaign, Castor reprised a familiar response, with a national twist.

“I think it is a solution looking for a problem,” Castor said. “First and foremost, the idea of this lawlessness does not bear out with the facts. Immigrants commit very, very few crimes in any city nationwide.”

Castor said she is willing to do her part for the party but will have to balance that with running Tampa.

“I don’t know the answer to that right now. That’s dependent on the availability of time. The job of mayor in this city of the Tampa is going to be all-encompassing. And that’s my first priority,” she said.

In an 18-minute interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Castor seemed more eager to discuss municipal nuts and bolts than national or identity politics.

She doesn’t plan any housecleaning at City Hall. At least initially, it’ll be “business as usual.”

After a brief trip to Miami, she will meet with department heads and senior staff before the May 1 inauguration.

One key decision has already been made. Castor said Police Chief Brian Dugan will continue as chief for the foreseeable future. Dugan reaches his mandatory retirement date in October. Castor said she’s inclined to keep him on the job with a contract after he retires.

“I like the job he’s doing. I know Brian Dugan very well and I would be more than happy to keep him on contract as chief of police. I think he’s doing a great job,” she said.

Castor said her focus will be on negotiating contracts with the police, fire and city worker unions, which all expire this year, and presenting City Council with a budget. It’s a lot to get done in the first five months of her term, which coincides with the final five months of the city’s fiscal year.

Buckhorn has said the city’s initial forecast shows a $1.7 million surplus in the approximately $1 billion budget, the first black ink after eight years of budget trimming needed to reach a charter-mandated balance.

But Castor said that good fiscal news won’t alter her first priority: adding to the city’s reserves to continue to improve the city’s bond rating.

“I’m fiscally conservative and will continue to be so with the budget,” she said.

A welcome break might be more turns in the national spotlight. MSNBC’s Velshir and Castor ended the interview with a hint of more to come.

“I look forward to more conversations with you,” Velshi said.

“I do, too,” Castor replied.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of his story incorrectly described Mayor-elect Jane Castor’s statement about how adding to the municipal reserves would affect the city’s bond rating.

Times staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago. Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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