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Despite recent bumps, Mayor Jane Castor’s reelection prospects look strong

Eleven months out from the election, a viable candidate has yet to commit to challenging the mayor in a city with a history of backing incumbents.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor appears to be in a strong position for reelection in 2023 with no visible opponent in a city that traditionally backs incumbent mayors.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor appears to be in a strong position for reelection in 2023 with no visible opponent in a city that traditionally backs incumbent mayors. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published Apr. 15|Updated Apr. 15

TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor joked in an interview last week that her dog Alcaldesa is more popular than she is right now.

This month, turbulent relations with City Council members, two of whom accused her of targeting her political opponents, coincided with significant pushback to her pick for police chief. Over the past year, her two biggest planned construction projects — Rome Yards mixed-use development in West Tampa and the City Center government office complex in East Tampa — have come under scrutiny for how bids were awarded.

Castor’s response to protests after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and her resistance to overhauling a citizen police review board to give it more teeth also angered some in the Black community.

Despite those headwinds, Castor hardly looks like a mayor in trouble. Less than 11 months before city voters select the next mayor, Castor has confirmed that she’s seeking reelection and no one has stepped forward as a viable challenger.

Several veteran political observers say the mayor remains popular. They note her leadership during the coronavirus pandemic, an ambitious agenda to combat climate change and her administration’s funneling of more than $22 million (mostly federal pandemic relief funds) to ease an affordable housing crunch as points in her favor.

Castor also has history on her side. Unlike St. Petersburg, in which the last two incumbent mayors, Rick Kriseman and Bill Foster, faced formidable challengers when they sought a second term, Tampa mayors have coasted to reelection for at least the last four decades.

“I think everybody knows the history of Tampa mayors, which is they don’t usually get challenged when they come up for reelection,” said Mike Suarez, a former council members who ran unsuccessfully against Castor in the 2019 mayoral campaign to replace term-limited Bob Buckhorn. “It’s very hard to beat an incumbent. She’d have to do something egregious, so incompetent that everyone would have to say, ‘We have to replace her.’”

Castor said she’ll run on her record and points to her efforts to transform the city by upgrading its transportation grid, creating more affordable housing and crafting a detailed sustainability plan to prepare the city for rising seas and other climatic changes.

But she said she has no idea when she’ll kick into campaign mode. No official launch is planned yet, she said. Mayoral candidates don’t have to file paperwork until January for the March 7 election and possible April 25 runoff.

“I think continuing along the path, handling those issues that really, in many instances are a byproduct of our success. Providing homes, mortgages and rents that are available to those who who want to live in Tampa or who have lived in Tampa, coming up with transportation solutions, making sure that we have the skilled workforce for the companies that are moving here.

“And then also for the companies that are growing from the ground up,” Castor said in January when she first confirmed her plan to run for a second term.

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Some political observers have mentioned Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez as a possible opponent. But Henriquez, who said he’s heard the rumors, said he won’t challenge Castor.

“I don’t know where all this stuff has started from. I’m flattered, but we have a mayor,” Henriquez said. “I have no intention to run against Jane Castor. I wouldn’t do that.”

Council member Bill Carlson, who has been a critic of Castor, most recently when he said she was targeting her opponents on City Council, left the door to a run open.

“Let’s see what happens,” Carlson said Tuesday when asked if he was considering running for mayor. “I’ve been getting a bunch of calls.”

Carlson said he would prefer another candidate emerge rather than mount a campaign himself. But he said the March resignation of council member John Dingfelder to resolve a lawsuit accusing him of public record violations and a city finding that council member Orlando Gudes created a hostile work environment for a former aide are evidence of Castor’s political overreach that leave her vulnerable.

Gudes has also said he’s been targeted as have Dingfelder’s supporters. Dingfelder is barred from discussing matters relating to the legal settlement. Both are among the council members who questioned the City Center project when it was not rebid after its projected cost increased tenfold.

That followed the city’s selection of Miami firm Related to redevelop the Rome Yard, a vacant city-owned storage lot that is set to be transformed into a mixed-use neighborhood. The project was contested by another developer for what it said were irregularities in how the bid was awarded. A subsequent review cleared the city’s handling of the project.

“The prevailing thought is that the mayor is in trouble and she and her administration went too far in attacking City Council and then tried to cover it up, which has made it worse,” Carlson said.

“That’s the beauty of the democratic system,” said Castor when informed Carlson said he’s mulling a run for mayor. “The public, the community, needs to choose the person that they feel can best lead our city into the future.”

After this story published online Friday, Carlson contacted the Times to say he is focused on running for reelection to his council seat and is not considering a mayoral run.

Castor, Henriquez and Carlson are all Democrats.

When Castor, the former Tampa police chief, easily coasted to victory over the late David Straz Jr. in 2019, the only precincts she lost were predominantly Black precincts.

Fran Tate, who leads the Jackson Heights Neighborhood Association and Crime Watch and is the chairperson of the citizen advisory committee of the East Tampa Community Redevelopment Area, said she hasn’t heard of any serious challenger to Castor — and doesn’t think the mayor is too worried about improving on her 2019 performance among Blacks.

“She won the election without our vote,” said Tate, who is Black. Tate said she thinks Castor hasn’t paid enough attention to the Black community, especially with rehabilitation of aging homes, commercial development and transportation improvements in East Tampa.

Former mayor Bob Buckhorn says Castor’s record and her performance during the pandemic have put her in a very good position for reelection, especially considering Tampa’s traditional backing of incumbent mayors.

“There’s really no reason for change at this point,” said Buckhorn, a strong Castor supporter.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify a comment by Mayor Jane Castor.

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