TAMPA —They speculated about union support and brainstormed how to speak to the media about their boss’s potential political collision with Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Then, after it was done, they alerted the White House about it.
In the days before Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s late August decision to require 4,700 city workers to get fully vaccinated against the coronavirus , senior staffers traded texts, emails and memos laying out the strategy behind what would become the first major effort in Tampa Bay requiring vaccines for public employees.
The Democratic mayor’s initiative could be construed as a political rebuke to strongly anti-mandate Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Perhaps for that reason, in a draft copy of Castor’s announcement speech, her spokesperson, Adam Smith, provided tips on how to respond if she was asked how Tampa’s vaccine push would conflict with the governor’s pandemic orders.
In the month since Castor’s Aug. 25 vaccine order, the debate over how to get more Americans vaccinated has intensified.
President Joe Biden has moved to require vaccinations for up to 100 million Americans. Meanwhile, a vocal minority have continued to protest against vaccine mandates, in Tampa and across the country.
Earlier this month, Castor’s cross-bay counterpart, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, decided against requiring vaccines for his city’s current employees.
For better or worse — Castor characterized her decision as potentially unpopular but for the greater good — her vaccine stance was another example of the mayor taking a stand on pandemic restrictions when other elected officials weren’t ready to do so. Castor was also the first Hillsborough political figure to advocate a stay-at-home order in March 2020, followed by a mask order three months later.
Castor is aware of her polarizing image. Vaccine supporters applaud what they see as courage. Opponents, however, have cast her as a villainous tyrant, even Adolf Hitler, as seen on a recent protest poster.
In a Sept. 8 interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Castor credited her police training with helping her withstand criticism of her directive.
“You can’t let that that criticism, that personal criticism, really enter into your decision making. You don’t make decisions based on popularity, you make decisions based on the facts and in what’s in the best interest of the community or the best interest of everyone involved. You’re never going to make everybody happy.”
Public documents reveal that the mayor’s staff were concerned about the reaction among the city’s three public service unions — police, fire and city workers — to the mayor’s directive.
Chief of Staff John Bennett briefed others on his take on union reaction: fire and city workers generally supportive. Police officers? Less so.
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“Getting some hype from police. Told them to relax. This will unpack well,” Bennett texted Castor and Smith.
Smith had just suggested in a text to Castor that the union leaders be invited to the news conference — though not invited to speak.
“Agree,” the mayor texted back.
At the Aug. 25 event, the three union leaders didn’t comment other than to say the mayor’s directive was a collective bargaining issue.
The attention paid to the unions’ receptiveness was warranted. All three unions had to ratify their agreement to details about the implementation of the mayor’s order as part of the collective bargaining process. In the coming weeks, all three did.
The Amalgamated Transit Workers Local 1464, the city’s largest union which represents blue-collar workers, voted 85 percent in favor, said Stephen Simon, the union’s president.
For Andrew Carter, the incoming fire union president, the concern among many fire fighters was that a yes vote might be interpreted as approval of the policy itself. Firefighters remain divided on the issue of vaccine mandates or requirements, he said.
Fire union leadership stressed that the vote would be on the union-negotiated changes to the contract, not on whether Castor was right or wrong to require vaccinations.
Last week, 77 percent of fire fighters voted in favor of the vaccination-inspired changes to the union contract, Carter said.
Danny Alvarez, the Tampa Police Benevolent Association’s legal counsel, also stressed that his union’s vote wasn’t a referendum on Castor’s actions. Instead, it involved policy changes negotiated by union leaders, like testing on city time and the use of antibody tests to meet vaccination requirements.
That ratification vote was also successful by an approximately two-thirds vote — although less than half of PBA members voted, Alvarez said.
And, although Castor has said neither she nor her staff was in contact with DeSantis before or after her decision, Smith counseled her on what to say if asked by reporters about the governor in an email containing “talking points” in advance of her news conference.
“I’m not here to criticize anyone. And I’m not here to score political points,” read Smith’s suggestion in an email the night before the announcement. “I am here solely to do what’s right for the residents of Tampa and 4,700 dedicated men and women who work for the residents of Tampa.”
Within hours of Castor’s announcement, Ian J. Whitney, the city’s associate director of the city’s office of government affairs, emailed White House staffers to let them know what Tampa had done.
“I wanted to pass along some news from Tampa concerning a mandate for employee vaccinations that was announced this morning,” Whitney’s email began with a copy of a city press release attached.
Since then, DeSantis and President Joe Biden have clashed frequently in the media over their conflicting approaches to governing during the pandemic.
Two weeks after Castor’s decision, Biden called for a much broader vaccine mandate: for federal workers and contractors, health care workers and employees of private businesses with more than 100 employees.
Back in Florida, DeSantis said he would fine cities and counties that required employees to get vaccinated, but didn’t mention Tampa in his public comments.
Smith said Monday there still haven’t been any conversations between Castor and DeSantis, or their respective offices.
Castor is clear that she took the controversial step because she believed science was on her side and time was of the essence.
“This isn’t something that we can sit around and, you know, mull over for a few weeks or a few months. These are life and death situations, literally,” she told the Times.