Mayor Jane Castor’s partner vowed not to lobby the city. How’d that go?

The mayor’s significant other is Ana Cruz, who’s Tampa’s 1st Lady on Twitter. And in a political twist, Cruz’s mother is now running for City Council.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, left, and her partner, Ana Cruz, walk the tarmac prior to the arrival of President Joe Biden at Tampa International Airport in February. Cruz, a lobbyist at Ballard Partners, is often by Castor's side at political events.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, left, and her partner, Ana Cruz, walk the tarmac prior to the arrival of President Joe Biden at Tampa International Airport in February. Cruz, a lobbyist at Ballard Partners, is often by Castor's side at political events. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Feb. 23|Updated Feb. 25

TAMPA — Some politicians’ significant others shy from the limelight. Not so Mayor Jane Castor’s partner, lobbyist Ana Cruz.

A political powerhouse herself, Cruz has helped run Florida campaigns for Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. On Twitter, she goes by Tampa’s 1st Lady and cruzmissle, a handle that speaks to her hard-charging personality.

In 2018, Castor — the city’s first female and first gay-and-out police chief — announced she would run for mayor, raising questions about her connection to Cruz, who is a managing partner at the high-powered Ballard lobbying firm.

Related: Jane Castor might be Tampa's next mayor. Her partner is Ana Cruz. Does it matter?

Ballard Partners, which specializes in governmental and public affairs and lists on its website offices in Florida, Washington, Boston, Tel Aviv and Istanbul, has represented clients to the city of Tampa, including Bird e-scooters and Domain Homes.

Some who pay attention to city politics wondered: Would Castor as mayor put Cruz in a position to influence City Hall? To steer lucrative business to her own firm? Would it be the very political Cruz, and not the historically apolitical Castor, running Tampa from the wings?

Jane Castor, with partner Ana Cruz, takes the oath of office as mayor of Tampa with U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven.
Jane Castor, with partner Ana Cruz, takes the oath of office as mayor of Tampa with U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Tampa Bay Times ]

Four years later, those questions haven’t materialized into concrete concerns. The mayor is now a cinch for a second term, with no one on the ballot against her for the March 7 election, despite rumblings of a challenge.

In an emailed response to the Tampa Bay Times, Castor dismissed lingering questions about Cruz as “insulting.”

But this election year, Cruz’s potential influence stands to grow. This time around, her mother, former state legislator Janet Cruz, is running for City Council against a sitting council member who often votes against the mayor.

That race has already taken an aggressive turn: When Cruz’s opponent, Lynn Hurtak, raised questions Monday at a political forum about access Cruz would have to her daughter’s partner — the mayor — Cruz asked Hurtak if she had “a problem with gay people.”

Related: Janet Cruz charges Lynn Hurtak has a problem with gay people. Hurtak is only council member to be endorsed by local LGBTQ group.

But just like four years ago, the idea that Ana Cruz’s connections might pose a conflict for Castor is dismissed by Ana Cruz herself, Castor and other political insiders.

“It’s nonsense,” Castor said.

“No evidence of that at all”

Just before her first election victory in 2019, Castor, Ana Cruz and Cruz’s firm’s president, Brian Ballard — who has been close to former President Donald Trump — said they all agreed that Cruz wouldn’t lobby for or profit from city business.

Cruz made headlines in February 2021 when the Related Group, a powerful Miami-based development firm, was bidding on a lucrative city contract to develop a prime Tampa property: a city truck facility known as Rome Yard.

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Related: Ana Cruz toured Tampa with Related CEO but they didn't talk business, she says

The Ballard firm was hired to help Related to make a presentation to the selection committee.

A month before Related was named as the city’s choice, Ana Cruz had lunch with the firm’s founder, Jorge Perez. They also took a van tour of Seminole Heights. They later went to the site of his West River development, where Perez took a walking tour of the property.

When asked then by the Tampa Bay Times, Cruz explained that while she met with Perez, she didn’t join him for the tour of his West River property. Both she and Perez said they didn’t discuss the bid by Related or any other city business. Cruz said they talked about their shared interest in art, with Tampa trying to grow its art scene and Perez being a noted collector.

Cruz acknowledged then that the optics of that day were not good, but said “the optics and the truth are very, very far apart.”

Cruz has since avoided such optics.

City officials recently confirmed through public records requests that Cruz hasn’t officially lobbied the city since Castor’s been mayor — nor has Ballard entered into any city contract.

A Ballard representative said in an email to the Times that the firm has “declined to represent many potential clients wishing to conduct business with the city in order to further avoid any potential appearance of conflict of interest.”

Ballard did work on behalf of at least one client with business before the city. Last year, Ballard represented a developer who didn’t get City Council approval to build a hotel on residential Harbour Island. Cruz was not involved personally in that matter, said attorney Jacob Kremer, who represents developer Punit Shah on the project.

Related: Tampa City Council nixes Harbour Island Hotel for second time

Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, under whom Castor served as police chief, said Cruz’s potential involvement in the city was “a natural question to ask” when Castor first ran for office. But, he said recently, “I see no evidence of that at all.”

“I think (Cruz) is fiercely loyal to her partner and her mayor,” Buckhorn said. “I think she gives advice when asked and when warranted. But I don’t see her involved in the day-to-day operations of the city.”

“You would know in pretty short order if she was involved in some case,” said Steve Michelini, a longtime local business consultant and fixture at City Hall since 1978. “First thing, there would be whispers among the staff. There haven’t been.”

Ana Cruz said in an emailed response to the Times that her role is as a supportive partner. “Jane has dedicated her life to protecting and improving our city,” she said. “She doesn’t need any help from me to move Tampa forward.”

Others outside City Hall say they suspect Cruz plays a more significant role.

“I think (Ana Cruz is) very good at manipulating things behind the scenes,” said Stephanie Poynor, president of the Tampa Homeowners Association of Neighborhoods. “I have no proof of this but that’s what I think.”

Cruz is “a walking advertisement for her firm: ‘OK, you want insight into the mayor’s office? We’re the group you call,’” said Larry Premak, president of the South Neighborhood Association, which recently fought the Harbour Island hotel plans. “Every photo op you see with the mayor, Ana Cruz is there. She might as well have a Ballard T-shirt on.”

Cruz’s response: “Anyone suggesting I should not appear in public with my partner is foolish.”

Mayor Jane Castor, left, and partner Ana Cruz toss beads at the 2022 Gasparilla Parade of Pirates.
Mayor Jane Castor, left, and partner Ana Cruz toss beads at the 2022 Gasparilla Parade of Pirates. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“Completely shocked”

Janet Cruz had her own ties to Ballard: In 2016, as incoming Democratic leader of the Florida House, she replaced a longtime staff director with Joe McCann, who three years earlier had been a lobbyist and senior vice president at Ballard.

Now Janet Cruz is a key storyline in the upcoming Tampa election — particularly given that Castor’s first term was marked by clashes with certain council members who accused her of political retaliation. Castor denies that.

Janet Cruz launches her campaign for Tampa City Council at Ulele restaurant.
Janet Cruz launches her campaign for Tampa City Council at Ulele restaurant. [ Charlie Frago ]

Late last year, Janet Cruz filed to challenge Hurtak, a council member who has opposed the mayor’s agenda. Castor then broke with city political tradition of staying out of council races and endorsed Janet Cruz.

City Attorney Andrea Zelman has said Cruz’s candidacy doesn’t violate any city or state ethical rules.

Hurtak told the Times earlier this month that family ties between her opponent and the mayor are “absolutely” a conflict. The issue came to a head at Monday’s NAACP political forum. Hurtak said at the forum that as a City Council member, Cruz would have special access to the mayor.

“I’m not going to have the luxury of sitting every single week with my daughter-in-law,” Hurtak told the crowd.

Cruz later fired back, twirling around to jab a finger at Hurtak: “Do you have a problem with gay people?” she asked before a crowd of about 200 people. ”I don’t understand you.”

Hurtak later said Cruz’s attack was off-base and showed her family-first tendency. She told the Times that she has a strong record on LGBTQ issues and has been endorsed over Cruz by the local LGBTQ caucus. Hurtak said Cruz’s rebuttal showed her unwillingness to confront what would be her job as a council member: to serve as a check and balance of the mayor.

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough NAACP, which hosted the forum, said Hurtak never mentioned anything about Cruz and Castor being gay nor did she send any coded messages. Rather, Lewis said, Hurtak appeared to her to be pointing out the familial relationships between the Cruz family and Castor, not their sexual orientations.

“People were completely shocked that it took a turn like that,” Lewis said of Cruz’s remark.

Cruz issued a statement after the forum saying she will always defend her family against “whisper campaigns.” She referred to Hurtak as a “mean girl.”

Ana Cruz dismissed the suggestion that her mother’s election could pose a conflict.

“Like she has done for the past 12 years as a state representative and state senator, my mother, if elected, will do what she thinks is best for the people she represents,” Cruz said. “Period.”

Janet Cruz did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

There is some overlap between the political campaigns for the mayor and Janet Cruz. Ashley Bauman, a former mayoral spokesperson for Castor, is running communications for Janet Cruz’s campaign. Bauman works for Mercury Public Affairs, which ran Castor’s 2019 mayoral run. Bauman is also handling Castor’s nominal reelection campaign.

Ana Cruz soon begins her second term as Tampa’s first lady — which is what a headline in Forbes magazine called her.

A recent statement from Ballard to the Times indicated Ana Cruz is expanding her reach as a lobbyist.

“Aside from her local and state advocacy work, she has built a robust federal practice,” it said, “and is also part of expanding our national footprint.”