The scene from a year ago seems inconceivable today, as hundreds of supporters crowded shoulder-to-shoulder to celebrate Jane Castor’s inauguration as Tampa’s 59th mayor. The gospel choir worked its magic that morning, and the future seemed bright for Florida’s third-largest city. Now the coronavirus pandemic has changed the world, the city -- and the mayor’s agenda.
Castor’s transition from able successor to former Mayor Bob Buckhorn to crisis manager is not yet complete, as Florida and the region look to reopen gradually in the coming weeks and months and comes to grips with the economic fallout of the coronavirus. The pandemic has altered her priorities, elevated her profile and tested her leadership. As Castor begins her second year in office this weekend, the challenges she faces are daunting and span from protecting public health to preparing for steep declines in tax revenue.
Left with a solid foundation, Castor got off to a strong start. As a former Tampa police officer who rose to become chief, she led the city’s largest department under two politically seasoned mayors, Buckhorn and Pam Iorio, who left the city in solid shape, charted Tampa’s growth and molded Castor’s belief in what City Hall can achieve. She inherited a competent staff, a surging downtown, a healthy city budget and satisfied neighborhoods. Her campaign promise to continue on the path that her predecessors, Bob Buckhorn and Pam Iorio, charted was instrumental in building a winning constituency in a big-name, seven-way race.
Castor chalked up some early successes, most importantly the city council’s approval of $3 billion in fixes to the aging water and sewer systems, the costliest infrastructure project in Tampa’s history. She solicited outside advice in developing new strategies to improve housing, transportation, job development and other key sectors. She gave new attention to small businesses, start-ups and LGBT-owned companies, following through on her pledge to promote diversity and equal opportunity.
To her detriment, there are times when Castor is still more police chief than big-city mayor. She issues directions and offers major policy proposals as though everyone will follow her orders, without first building the political support and consensus needed to seal a victory. And when she has tried to be accommodating, she has been run over by stronger politicians.
Castor put on hold a long-running plan to convert highly-treated wastewater into a drinking water source after critics bombarded her with environmental concerns. Rather than insist on pushing forward with studies to address these concerns, which already were under consideration, Castor decided to pull back, even though early indications showed the project would be highly beneficial to the region.
The mayor also got into a protracted battle with the city council over an arcane dispute about who would manage the city’s redevelopment areas - taxing districts that are intended to rebuild blighted communities. The battle over control nearly overshadowed the larger issue of how to invest more strategically in struggling neighborhoods. The back-and-forth made Castor looked more like an eighth council member than the mayor.
The board of local officials managing Hillsborough County’s response to the coronavirus pandemic rescinded a countywide curfew only days after imposing it in April. In urging approval before the vote, Castor said a curfew was a good idea and a valuable tool for law enforcement. But three days later, the same board voted unanimously to rescind the curfew, calling it premature. And the board didn’t even vote on Castor’s proposal to require that masks be worn in public.
To be sure,, the stay-home orders and social distancing imposed after the coronavirus outbreak have limited Castor’s opportunity to expand her agenda. She also seems less inclined than Buckhorn was to take the regional lead, though that could change over time.
The coronavirus has sharpened scrutiny of her leadership. Though the mayor failed to convince Hillsborough officials to require that masks be worn in public, she generally has been a stable, influential voice in the local response effort. Her concerns too often have skewed toward the interests of government control as officials have sought to balance civil liberties and public health. But Tampa residents have responded to her plea for caution. Castor’s matter-of-fact performances on national television, and daily Facebook briefings, have also resonated with local audiences for her blend of straight talk, calm and encouragement.
Her true test, though, will be in the coming year, as the economic fallout from the pandemic poses dire challenges for cities and states. While the state collected more sales tax revenue in March than it did the same month last year, collections in April - the first full month of the economic shutdown - will be significantly down. And cities and counties could see big losses in property taxes if job cuts and business closings spark a collapse in real estate, especially the commercial market.
None of this was on the horizon one year ago as Castor was sworn in at downtown’s hottest new venue, as the port and airport looked to record traffic and as downtown’s development chugged along. A region preparing for Super Bowl 55 now has entirely different challenges. Castor’s task is not maintaining course so much as trying to protect the progress that Tampa has made. A moment of reflection at her raucous inaugural turned out to be prescient. While Tampa’s resurgence had not been by accident, the new mayor noted, "our continued success is not inevitable.” That’s the sober reality so early in her term.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news