TAMPA — In the last week of February, South Tampa had a case of road rage. CSX, the railroad company, suddenly closed several major intersections, snarling traffic for a day.
This was Jane Castor’s first mayoral crisis, whispered political insiders. Up until then, the mayor of Florida’s third-largest city hadn’t hit any major bumps during her first 10 months in office.
She’d had to withdraw a controversial $300 million wastewater conversion project derisively dubbed “toilet-to-tap” by critics. But she had inherited that project from her predecessor, Bob Buckhorn.
Castor had successfully pushed another Buckhorn initiative —a $2.9 billion, 20-year plan to repair the city’s aging water and sewage infrastructure — over the finish line. And, her staff had smoothed some early flare-ups with a City Council that had signaled it wanted to play a larger role.
Then, coronavirus struck like an invisible tsunami. And an administration that had been set on cruise control throttled up to confront a crisis akin to coping with a months-long hurricane.
Castor found her moment. The 33-year police veteran and former police chief forged her career dealing with the unexpected and making quick decisions. The pandemic would present dozens of challenges each day.
“As a police officer, you don’t have the luxury of taking your time and making decisions. You have a set of facts thrown at you. And you have to make the decision that’s in the best interest of the community at that particular moment,” Castor said.
Some can find her mindset unsettling. Transportation activists were dismayed when Castor declined to shut down or modify Bayshore Boulevard after two people were killed. And members of the county’s Emergency Policy Group initially pushed back against Castor’s March 23 proposal for a countywide safer-at-home order because of the pandemic.
And her announcement that she would implement a citywide order earned a strong rebuke from County Administrator Mike Merrill. Yet by March 26, the emergency policy group voted unanimously to put a countywide order in place after all.
Castor has no regrets.
“I know sometimes that I can be, you know, somewhat of a bull in the china shop when I feel very passionately about an issue and I feel that it’s in the best interests of our community,” Castor said.
County Commission Chairman Les Miller, who initially resisted Castor’s countywide plan, said such disagreements are to be expected.
“We had a few bumps in the road there,” Miller said. “Things seemed to be working pretty good since that time.”
City Council Chairman Luis Viera said the pandemic has been Castor’s shining moment.
“Covid-19 was a game changer,” Viera said. “Her early steps in pushing for a Hillsborough stay-at-home directive I think showed real, real leadership.”
Most of the city’s front-line employees — the people who drive the city’s garbage trucks, keep the sewers free of debris and maintain a safe water supply — aren’t staying home. As essential workers, they’re risking their health every day. Some have inquired about hazard pay, said Local 1464 Amalgamated Transit Union President Stephen Simon.
Simon said he tells the union rank and file that hazard pay would be a federal program. But, he says, they remain supportive of Castor, who the union endorsed in her 2019 mayoral race and who recently approved a new labor deal. Her decision to give all city workers at least a $15 hourly wage generated a lot of good will, as did her administration’s cooperation on the bargaining agreement.
“They definitely feel that’s one of the best things we did was to endorse her coming in,” Simon said.
Early on, Castor’s administration focused on neighborhoods.
Tampa neighborhood activists had made it clear in the run up to her landslide win they felt neglected during Buckhorn’s eight years of building up downtown and adjacent areas like Armature Works.
Castor agreed to beef up city services in East Tampa and announced a commitment to affordable housing.
That emphasis has been noticed, said Miller, especially in the African American community, where she lost seven majority-black precincts — her only losses out of 103 precincts citywide. Castor was police chief when a 2015 Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed that black bicyclists were being disproportionately cited for minor violations. During the campaign, she said the policy was a mistake.
Castor responded to that political message the voters sent, Miller said.
“You want to go in and find out what the problem was where you didn’t do well, what didn’t resonate with those voters. I think she attempted very well to do that,” said Miller, who is retiring this year after decades in Hillsborough politics. “She knows that ‘biking while black’ was a major issue and that’s why she lost the precincts in the black community."
Miller credits Castor with being a presence in areas like East Tampa, but says her staff needs to spend more time in black neighborhoods.
“I think they need to do a little more to get out in the community because a lot of people don’t know who they are,” Miller said.
Asked to evaluate her success in building bridges to Tampa’s black community and the legacy of the “biking while black" controversy, Castor said she has not changed her approach.
“First, I would say that perception was erroneous, and it was held by very few vocal individuals and groups," Castor said of the ticketing controversy. "My entire career of public service has been defined by my outreach to the neighborhoods and to the citizens and working on the ground to make our community better for every single citizen in Tampa. So that’s something that I have continued. It hasn’t been increased or decreased,” she said.
For now, though, the plans for affordable housing, refurbishing community centers and other neighborhood projects are all up in the air. With the virus-induced recession already underway, the city’s chief financial officer, Dennis Rogero, recently told council members that no project is safe from the budget ax in the months ahead.
Castor remains optimistic. When asked for her proudest accomplishment during her first year in office, she pointed to the team she had assembled and the task forces she’d created to grapple with complex issues like construction services, housing and transportation.
“The COVID-19 issue will have an effect on our community, but we will just look for different ways to accomplish the goals that are outlined in each of those reports,” she said.
Castor called her city "incredibly resilient and determined, and we will come back stronger than ever.”
So far, Tampa residents have responded to the mayor’s confidence. Among local leaders, she polls highest for her handling of the crisis and has become a regular guest on national news shows, appearing close to a dozen times on ABC, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and NPR.
That exposure has prompted political chatter that she is an emerging candidate for statewide office. Adam Smith, the former Times’ political editor who was a consultant in Castor’s mayoral campaign, said that is no surprise.
“You have an extremely popular mayor in Tampa Bay, that automatically makes you a strong contender for statewide office in Florida,” said Smith, who no longer works for Castor. “She has a broad appeal. She’s not a conventional politician. She’s a straight shooter. That’s why people like her in Tampa.”
Whether Castor wants to take on that challenge is another matter. Asked why she’s been such a frequent guest on national outlets recently, Castor jokes that maybe the 24-hour cable news channels have run out of interesting people to interview.
But she notes that she doesn’t veer into partisanship in her appearances.
“Maybe they’re interviewing me because the public is tired of hearing the political rhetoric and they just want to hear what steps are being taken to keep residents safe and healthy,” Castor said.
When Castor first started getting mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate, she quipped to a Times columnist that such talk only showed that Tampa’s drug problem was worse than she thought it had been as police chief.
Asked recently about a possible run for governor, Castor used another example from her law enforcement career.
When she retired as chief in 2015, Castor had offers from other cities to head up their police departments, she said. She turned them all down.
“Here’s what I’ll say about that,” Castor said. “I was born and raised in Tampa. I will not leave Tampa.”