Parties rally around candidates in non-partisan Tampa City Council race

Democrats have lined up behind incumbent Bill Carlson, while Republicans are backing Blake Casper.
Tampa City Council incumbent Bill Carlson, left, and challenger Blake Casper.
Tampa City Council incumbent Bill Carlson, left, and challenger Blake Casper. [ handout ]
Published Feb. 10|Updated Feb. 15

Both local political parties are getting involved in what promises to be a hard-fought Tampa City Council race between Bill Carlson and Blake Casper to represent South Tampa.

Gov. Ron DeSantis “is making a play for the Tampa City Council” in the Casper campaign, the county Democratic Party said in a news release last week, announcing a canvassing effort on behalf of Carlson.

That accusation, which Casper denies, relates in part to Casper’s history as a donor backing Republican candidates including DeSantis.

Republicans, meanwhile, have promoted two canvassing days for Casper and plan to do more, according to April Schiff, political consultant for Casper’s campaign who’s also a veteran local GOP activist.

His campaign treasurer is Nancy Watkins, a high-level GOP donor and campaign finance expert.

Carlson has been a member of a local Democratic fundraising organization but said he attends functions held by both parties and added, “On the council, we have to be non-partisan, and I listen to everybody’s concerns.”

Council races are non-partisan, but the parties are free to campaign for whom they choose and have become increasingly involved in non-partisan judicial, school board and city races.

Giving the District 4 South Tampa race a partisan tinge could benefit Casper. It’s the only Tampa council district where Republicans outnumber Democrats, 39% to 31%, with77% white and only 5% Black.

Citywide, most mayor and council candidates are Democrats. Casper, the most prominent Republican and likely best-funded, looks like the GOP’s best hope of winning a seat.

The local Republican Party is also boosting two other Republican candidates in citywide districts — George “TheHunted” Feshev, who faces former state Sen. Janet Cruz, incumbent Lynn Hurtak and others in the citywide District 3 race; and Chase Harrison, who faces Alan Clendenin, incumbent Joe Citro and Sonja Brookins in District 1, which is also a citywide seat.

Casper, wealthy from ownership of McDonald’s franchises, is a prominent GOP political donor. His recent contributions have included $105,600 to Donald Trump in 2020, and in the 2022 election, $214,200 to DeSantis’s political committee, $50,800 to Sen. Rick Scott, almost $100,000 to the national Republican Party and thousands more to GOP candidates including Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Reps. Anna Paulina Luna, Gus Bilirakis and Laurel Lee.

He has also given for years to local Republican candidates, but also to some Democrats, including Mayor Jane Castor, Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and others.

Carlson, meanwhile, has been a Democratic donor but in comparatively small amounts and mostly to local candidates.

In an interview, Casper said he has never spoken to DeSantis about running for the City Council.

“As far as this being orchestrated by Ron DeSantis or anybody else, that’s not true,” he said.

“I don’t think we should be overtly partisan in these elections — I don’t think potholes are partisan, I don’t think public safety is partisan, or smart growth.”

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He said increasing party involvement in non-partisan races is “a function of the times we live in. Politics has gotten much more partisan.”

Casper also said there has been considerable political “drama” among the council members and Castor, “and they’re all Democrats.”

Schiff said the Republican party is getting involved simply because, “We’re interested in seeing more Republicans on City Council. We used to have several and we’re trying to turn that back around.”

Carlson said the council strife has been overplayed, and that he intends to “run a non-partisan race — it’s a non-partisan position, and I plan to tell people about my track record of helping the community.”