TAMPA — Blake Casper kicked off his campaign to challenge incumbent City Council member Bill Carlson for his South Tampa seat on Thursday night by telling a large crowd that he lost faith in Carlson during the protests in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Casper said he had been nearby when the protests turned violent. At the time, Casper’s family owned McDonald’s franchises, one of which was near where protesters burned businesses. Casper said he helped the restaurant crew get home safely.
He said Carlson, who he calls a friend, disappointed him with his subsequent criticism of the Tampa Police Department, which at the time was led by now-retired Chief Brian Dugan.
“That’s the test of leadership. Right when when the chips are down, what do people do? And for Bill, you know, he used that as an opportunity. He absolutely pulled the rug out from under Brian and his team. And to me that was at that point. I was... absolutely finished,” Casper told the crowd at the Oxford Exchange, which he owns.
Casper, who spends time in Chicago, said Tampa must avoid the fate of the nation’s third-largest city.
“People in Chicago are so downtrodden,” Casper said, saying they’ve lost faith in their city.
That crowd included many notable Republicans: Attorney General Ashley Moody, former attorney general Pam Bondi, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and plenty of South Tampa power brokers, including local business consultant Steve Michelini. High-profile Republican campaign hands like Nancy Watkins and April Schiff are on board.
Mayor Jane Castor, who won’t face anyone on the ballot in the March 7 election, has said she’s likely to back Casper, 49, a registered Republican who has been a big donor to Gov. Ron DeSantis, former president Donald Trump and a host of local politicians, both Republican and Democratic.
Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Dugan, both of whom have publicly clashed with Carlson, urged the crowd to turn out for Casper, who is making his first run for political office.
Buckhorn, who was mayor between 2011 and 2019, said the city needs a return to its normal way of doing business before a protracted battle between Castor and several council members, including Carlson, damages the city’s upward trajectory.
“If we turn out the vote, and it’s a single member district, it doesn’t take a lot of votes. If we turn out the vote, we can start the change, we can start the healing, we can continue to progress and we can get back to doing business the way we’ve done it for the last 10 years,” Buckhorn said.
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Dugan, who dubbed Carlson “Bullet Bill” for his 2020 request to delay the purchase of ammunition for the police shooting range, said he hung the moniker on Carlson because “I’m a sarcastic smartass.”
“We need people that are going to build this community up and bring everyone together. We’re a city on a move, we don’t have time for the pettiness,” said Dugan, who since his 2021 retirement has been active commenting on Tampa politics on social media, often criticizing Carlson.
Friday morning, Carlson, a Democrat, held his usual morning Cafè con Tampa event at the Oxford Exchange, which he posted about on Twitter.
Carlson texted a statement, saying he was disappointed in the “negative attacks” and touting his record, including “working with police to fight crime.”
“I am committed to putting Tampa families first,” Carlson said. “Unfortunately, my opponent will put his rich developer friends first on city council.”