TAMPA — The race to become Tampa's next mayor, a battle that stirred to life 15 months ago, will finally cross the finish line Tuesday evening when polls close on the runoff contest between Jane Castor and David Straz.
There have been just three face-to-face encounters between the two candidates in the seven weeks since the primary — a big change from past Tampa mayoral runoffs, when debates were much more frequent.
Early on, Castor, a former police chief, said she was open to as many forums as possible. But Straz declined, saying voters were tired of them.
Instead, the retired banker, who finished nearly 33 points behind Castor in the primary election, spent millions attacking her record leading the Tampa Police Department, and attempting to tie her to what he says is a corrupt, good-old-boy network that runs Florida's third-largest city.
Castor, 59, has largely ignored the attacks, except to frequently say the first-time candidate doesn't know what he's talking about. She has focused on presenting herself as the logical successor to term-limited mayor Bob Buckhorn and as a capable leader who will tackle the city's transportation, affordable housing and quality of life issues.
Most of the city's political and business establishment has endorsed Castor, including nearly all of the city's former mayors. Six of the seven Hillsborough County School Board members were the latest to do so last week.
Buckhorn, who in recent polls has registered favorable ratings in the high 70 percent range, has appeared in several commercials for Castor and has actively campaigned for her.
Straz, 76, hasn't landed many endorsements lately. He did, however, announce the backing of neighborhood activist Connie Burton last week.
Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Craig Latimer asked to extend the mayoral runoff period this year from three to seven weeks to better serve military and overseas voters. Though voters only got two televised debates between the candidates, they were inundated with commercials and mailers as the race exceeded all previous spending records for local office in Tampa Bay.
Campaign filings through April 18 show Straz has spent about $5.1 million on the race, almost all of it his own money. Castor has raised more than $2 million, including at least $200,000 from Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, a frequent target of the Straz campaign.
In February, Straz called for an investigation of Vinik's influence in Tampa, something he later backed away from. But Vinik, who endorsed Castor, continued to be a subject of Straz's attention. In the final weeks, the Straz campaign ran TV ads identifying an unnamed Channelside investor as a major part of the city's good-old-boy network.
And on Friday, just before the last debate was canceled, the Straz campaign sent a statement to the Tampa Bay Times saying the newspaper's co-sponsorship of the debate with WTMP radio and WFLA-Ch. 8 raised fears in the Straz camp of bias because the newspaper had endorsed Castor, as had a "major investor" in the newspaper.
Vinik was one of eight investors who loaned $12 million to the Times in 2017. Under the agreement, Vinik and the other investors have no role in the newspaper's editorial or news coverage, Times chairman Paul Tash has said.
The final weekend of the campaign, which fell on Easter, was quiet, with 1,888 people voting early across the city on Saturday, the last day of early voting. Overall, turnout Monday morning stood at 16 percent, with 36,833 people casting their ballots so far.
That rate suggests the final turnout will beat the anemic 20.6 percent who voted in the primaries.
The polls open Tuesday at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. For information on your precinct, please check the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections website: https://www.votehillsborough.org/City-of-Tampa-Election