6 stories that could dominate Tampa Bay headlines in 2023

Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and the economy are sure to make news. What else might move the needle?
Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, could announce this year that he is running for president, and there would be telltale signs before he made such an announcement. Former President Donald Trump has made repeated stumbles, fueling DeSantis’ meteoric rise.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, could announce this year that he is running for president, and there would be telltale signs before he made such an announcement. Former President Donald Trump has made repeated stumbles, fueling DeSantis’ meteoric rise. [ Getty Images North America ]
Published Jan. 3|Updated Jan. 3

It’s likely that the biggest story of 2023 will come seemingly out of nowhere.

Had the Tampa Bay Times outlined the most important stories to watch in 2022, it’s unlikely we would have called that a near-Category 5 hurricane would churn through Southwest Florida (narrowly missing Tampa Bay), or that a star quarterback would retire and unretire, or that Gov. Ron DeSantis would suddenly oust the Hillsborough state attorney.

Major news events, like the whims of political stars and football GOATs, are hard to predict.

Related: Florida’s top news stories of 2022, from parents’ rights to migrant flights

But let’s try anyway. Here are the top stories to watch as 2022 turns to 2023.

Will DeSantis run for president?

Arguably no one had a better 2022 than Ron DeSantis.

For most high-profile politicians, a historic reelection landslide in a once-purple state’s governor’s race would be reason enough to celebrate. But DeSantis’ meteoric rise has been coupled with repeated stumbles from former President Donald Trump, the man widely thought of as his chief rival for the 2024 Republican nomination — should DeSantis seek it.

We’ll likely get our answer about DeSantis’ political future this year. Most White House seekers officially announce their campaigns the year before the general election, and a political committee supporting the now term-limited DeSantis is sitting on $62 million.

But there will be telltale moves made well before an official announcement. DeSantis could make some not-so-inconspicuous trips to Iowa or New Hampshire before he officially announces. He’s sure to continue his steady diet of appearances on national conservative news programs, and an autobiography about his work in Florida comes out Feb. 28.

Plus, Republicans hold a supermajority in the state Legislature. They’re almost certain to hand DeSantis a number of policy victories during the legislative session that begins March 7. Some of these potential policies — abortion restrictions and permitless firearm carry, for example — will undoubtedly appeal to Republican presidential primary voters. (Republican lawmakers are also looking at changing the law to make it clear DeSantis can run for president without resigning his current office.)

For years, DeSantis has been acting like someone with ambitions for the Oval Office. This will be the year we finally find out his intentions.

The housing market is cooling. Is a recession next?

The Federal Reserve keeps raising interest rates in hopes of tamping down inflation. In doing so, it has already started to cool the Tampa Bay region’s scorching housing market: One local tracker found that home sales are down nearly 22% year over year.

Homeowners shouldn’t celebrate a new day of affordable housing in Florida just yet, though. Sales are down, but home prices have stayed elevated. Meanwhile, experts are having trouble predicting the future of the condominium market, thanks in part to state regulatory changes that have increased maintenance fees.

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These data are just a few signals amid lots of confusing economic noise. According to the rental site Zumper, Tampa rental prices have dipped after spiking earlier this summer.

Zoom out and there’s more confusion. The American technology sector has laid off tens of thousands of workers, but the national unemployment rate is at a low 3.7%. (Florida’s unemployment rate is even lower, 2.6%.)

It’s difficult to make predictions when faced with these seemingly conflicting trends. How susceptible will Florida be to the national economy, whatever direction it goes? That will be one of the stories to watch in 2023.

Related: If a recession hits Tampa Bay in 2023, here's how you can be ready

Tampa’s next police chief

One of the biggest stories to watch in Tampa centers on the same question city residents were asking this time last year.

After Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan announced in 2021 that he was retiring, Mayor Jane Castor was tasked with finding the city’s next chief. In February 2022, Castor tapped Mary O’Connor, a former assistant chief at the department.

Just 10 months later, O’Connor was out after video surfaced showing her flashing her badge during a traffic stop in Pinellas County and telling a sheriff’s deputy she hoped he would “just let us go.” The deputy had stopped O’Connor and her husband, Keith, on Nov. 12 as Keith O’Connor was driving the couple’s golf cart without a license tag on a public road in Oldsmar near their home. Calling O’Connor’s actions “unacceptable,” Castor asked for her chief’s resignation and received it on Dec. 5.

Related: Tampa police Chief Mary O'Connor resigns amid traffic stop controversy

Now Castor is once again searching for a new top cop, a process she said will take several months. Castor tapped Assistant Chief Lee Bercaw to serve as interim chief while the search is underway.

Last time around, Castor drew criticism from many in the city, including some City Council members, who said the search process was not transparent or inclusive enough. This time, Castor, herself a former chief of the department, said she will hire a national firm to conduct a search that she said will be “comprehensive, exhaustive and very inclusive.”

Castor said the national search will consider any internal applicants. Bercaw told the Times last month that he had not decided whether he will apply.

— Tony Marrero

Tropicana Field: Is this the year something happens?

Fifteen years ago, the Tampa Bay Rays unveiled plans for an iconic new waterfront stadium at the current Al Lang Field, complete with a mast and sail that could be deployed to shield fans from summer rains. It was to be built with proceeds from redeveloping Tropicana Field.

“This is not going to be an easy thing,” Rays’ principal owner Stuart Sternberg said then.

No kidding.

Since then, the Rays have floated stadium proposals on both sides of the bay that have failed to capture the public’s imagination. Now the team is back with its latest pitch: to redevelop the Trop and its 86 acres with homes, a music hall, hotels and an entertainment district — complete with a stadium.

The Rays are one of four groups that have put forward proposals to redevelop the Trop site. St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch is slated to pick a winner as early as this month.

— Bill Varian

The statewide teacher shortage

In 2016, the Florida Education Association started counting the number of teaching vacancies at the beginning of each school year. They found 2,400 open positions across the state. This past August, the number had grown to more than 6,000.

Florida’s teacher shortage is growing more acute, and experts predict it will only worsen after the winter break, when many educators routinely retire or leave for other jobs.

How the state responds will be a big question for 2023.

The teacher pipeline has been decreasing for years, but poor student behavior and classroom conditions caused by the pandemic have worsened the shortage. Teachers’ unions also point to DeSantis’ portrayal of public schools as “woke” centers of “indoctrination,” saying related legislation has eroded the public’s regard for their profession.

That’s on top of perennial complaints about pay and education funding. Every year, the governor and lawmakers tout an increased education budget, but it hasn’t kept pace with rising costs. With each election, more Florida school districts are asking voters to approve local-option property taxes to make up for lagging allocations from Tallahassee. (Two such referendums were on the 2022 ballot in Tampa Bay, with Pasco County voters favoring a special tax for schools and Hillsborough voters narrowly rejecting one.)

Related: Hillsborough rejected school tax while other Florida counties said yes

Florida ranked 50th in the nation — ahead of Mississippi — with an average teacher salary of $49,583 in 2021. That’s according to a ranking of the states and the District of Columbia by USAFacts, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that collects and distributes government data.

The Legislature has increased starting pay for teachers, but advocates say the absence of a similar bump for veteran educators is another reason many teachers don’t make it a career.

— Thomas C. Tobin

Political shakeups across the Tampa Bay region

The Republican wave in November’s election may have been confined to Florida, but it ran deep here. The elections are likely to bring a change of course on the Pinellas and Hillsborough commissions after Republicans reclaimed narrow majorities.

In Pinellas, things are likely to get a little more feisty on a board known for its congeniality. Republican Chris Latvala, a former state representative, seldom minces words. Fellow newly elected GOPer Brian Scott, who runs a private bus company, quickly claimed a seat on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority from Democrat chairperson Janet Long, over her objections.

Expect more heated debates.

In Hillsborough, Joshua Wostal and Donna Cameron Cepeda picked off two Democratic incumbents who were strong growth management proponents. Wostal has signaled a desire to rein in spending and said it’s time to put a proposed transportation sales tax to rest, as has Cepeda.

— Bill Varian