Tampa Bay people to watch in 2023 | Editorial
Here are some Tampa Bay leaders who will shape the region.
A rainbow appears amid dark clouds in Tampa Bay in this photo from Times files. The Tampa Bay leaders chronicled in our editorial will face similar metaphorical political weather in the new year ahead. How will they fare?
A rainbow appears amid dark clouds in Tampa Bay in this photo from Times files. The Tampa Bay leaders chronicled in our editorial will face similar metaphorical political weather in the new year ahead. How will they fare? [ Times (2012) ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Dec. 29, 2022

Our annual list of people to watch may not necessarily include the biggest newsmakers. But these leaders from the worlds of politics, sports, academe and business will be busy, both publicly and behind the scenes, shaping the quality of life throughout Tampa Bay.

Nadia Combs, chairperson, Hillsborough County School Board

Nadia Combs
Nadia Combs [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The Hillsborough County School Board started off a tough year by doing a sensible thing: Reelecting member Nadia Combs to a second term as board chairperson. Combs was first elected to the board in 2020 and quickly established herself as an informed, forward-looking leader. An entrepreneur who founded a tutoring company, this former middle school teacher of the year brings solid credentials, problem-solving skills and a reasonable, open demeanor to the increasingly politicized world of public education. Combs combines a student-first approach with high expectations for the district and an exacting eye for detail. That combination is essential as the Hillsborough school district continues working to stabilize its finances and as it begins an emotionally fraught discussion in the coming months over what to do with dozens of under-used Hillsborough schools. Combs’ straightforward approach, sensitivity to minority concerns and wide appreciation for competing interests makes her the perfect school chairperson at this critical time.

Brian Butler, chairperson, Tampa Bay Chamber

Brian Butler
Brian Butler [ Courtesy of Brian Butler ]

Brian Butler retired after two decades in military, moved his family to the Tampa Bay area in 2006 and discovered: “I couldn’t find a job.” So he founded his own marketing company, Vistra Communications, which over the last 15 years, has grown from a one-man band into a business with more than 100 employees. Butler will now take that sense of initiative into his new role as chairperson of the Tampa Bay Chamber. He’s already been heavily involved in supporting the Hillsborough County schools, connecting children with role models, and plugging business executives into their communities. As chamber chair over the coming year, Butler says he wants to promote businesses of all sizes, launch an initiative to help veteran-run companies and push for more investment and support for LGBTQ+ and minority-owned businesses. That’s a tall agenda. But Butler seems to have the energy and commitment to deliver, which would advance the entire region.

Alex Golesh, head football coach, University of South Florida

Alex Golesh
Alex Golesh [ MATT MURSCHEL | Orlando Sentinel ]

Sports fans (and alumni) across the region are expecting big things from Alex Golesh, who the University of South Florida in December named the Bulls’ new head football coach. The 38-year-old Russia native spent the last two years as offensive coordinator at Tennessee, and before that, a year as co-offensive coordinator at the University of Central Florida. Athletic director Michael Kelly praised Golesh as having “one of the most creative and successful offensive minds in college football,” and Golesh promised to produce “the most aggressive team in the country, both on the field and on the recruiting trail.” We’ll see about all that. But if Golesh delivers, it could make for exciting football, and a rallying point of pride across the region. And of course, that wouldn’t hurt USF’s long ambition to build an on-campus football stadium. USF continues to target an opening in Fall 2026. Golesh’s record will shape the momentum in these next crucial years.

Frederick Hicks, CEO, Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County

Frederick Hicks
Frederick Hicks [ handout ]

A child’s destiny is shaped long before they even enter kindergarten. That’s why the work of the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County is so essential, and why its new CEO, Frederick Hicks, will play such a pivotal part. Hicks was hired in November after working more than 20 years with similar child services programs in South Florida. The coalition provides children up to 5 years old with school readiness programs and support services. Its goals for 2023 include expanding participation in voluntary pre-k and to improve the quality of the early learning experience. Hicks’ agency will be key to improving outcomes in the Hillsborough schools, and more broadly, with shepherding young students onto greater success. That’s a fundamental mission to improving life across Tampa Bay and making this metropolitan region more competitive.

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Patricia Okker, president, New College of Florida

Patricia Okker
Patricia Okker [ Provided ]

With free speech on Florida’s university campuses increasingly under attack and some state Republican leaders openly ridiculing liberal arts education, it’s fair to wonder: What’s the future of New College of Florida? Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College is the honors college of Florida, a small residential institution that allows students to mold their own programs of study, and where progress is measured by evaluations, not grades. Patricia Okker, whose scholarship has focused on American literature, was appointed president in July 2021, drawn away from three decades at the University of Missouri by New College’s unique approach. Okker says that colleges will increasingly rely on strong partnerships with their communities and the private sector. Among the school’s goals for 2023 is to improve student outcomes and to increase its contributions to Florida’s economy. Some wonder whether New College will lose its funk and student-centric focus in today’s political climate. But Okker, a multiple marathoner, says New College can ably nurture both a student‘s intellectual curiosity and career.

David Thompson, government affairs director, City of St. Petersburg

David Thompson
David Thompson [ City of St. Petersburg ]

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch announced in December that David Thompson would become the city’s new pipeline to power in Tallahassee and Washington. As the city’s government affairs director, Thompson will be responsible for developing and maintaining contacts with state and federal elected officials, government staff and lobbyists. The job involves being proactive about policy changes at the state and federal levels, and ensuring that St. Petersburg is on the radar in Tallahassee and Washington. The task is a big one, and Welch, a Democrat, will need to provide Thompson, who turns 25 in January, the support he needs to build relationships with the Republican-led government in Florida, and with a GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives come January. Thompson, who served as student body president at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, worked as a legislative assistant for Democratic U.S. Reps. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg and Shontel Brown of Ohio, so he knows the territory. This is a crucial post that requires energy, intuition and strong advocacy.

Adelee Le Grand, CEO, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit

Adelee Le Grand
Adelee Le Grand [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

We’ll know in the coming months whether the chief executive of Hillsborough County’s transit agency will stay or go. At a special meeting in November, the board of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authorized an outside investigation into allegations of a hostile workplace at HART, and the double-dipping of a senior staff member who worked simultaneously for a transit agency out of state. If CEO Adelee Le Grand survives, she’ll have some fence-mending to do, and will likely be subject to closer scrutiny by the board. If she leaves, the agency will need a replacement — this in a county with grossly underfunded bus service, and where conservatives have succeeded in sabotaging several transit improvement referendums in recent years. The outlook isn’t encouraging either way, and commuters — and Hillsborough’s prospects for growth — are the biggest losers.

Brother John Muhammad, Member, St. Petersburg City Council

Brother John Muhammad
Brother John Muhammad [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

It can only be hoped that Brother John Muhammad’s tenure on St. Petersburg City Council won’t match the tone of his selection. Muhammad, whose legal name is John C. Malone, was narrowly selected by the City Council in October after an emotional four-hour meeting to fill the unexpired term of Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, who resigned in September after questions arose that she no longer lived within her District 7 constituency. Muhammad, a longtime community activist, sparked controversy for his support of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader whom the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as an anti-Semite. But supporters defended Muhammad’s record of service in a predominantly Black and poor community, and some said his religious beliefs should not affect his ability to serve in city government. Muhammad insisted he was a “bridge builder” who champions inclusivity. He’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate that commitment between now and the next election in 2024.

Chief, Tampa Police Department (Vacant)

The December resignation of Tampa police Chief Mary O’Connor after an embarrassing traffic stop gives Tampa Mayor Jane Castor a chance to find a better fit for her top city appointment. Castor tapped O’Connor for the job in early 2021 after a flawed search that included no meaningful public input, a mistake that hobbled O’Connor from the start and unnecessarily drew public criticism. Castor says she will conduct a national search for O’Connor’s successor, and involve key community leaders in the process. That is an encouraging — and appropriate — promise, and the agency is in capable hands with its interim leader, Assistant Chief Lee Bercaw. The police department needs a chief with solid public credibility. O’Connor, to her credit, made inroads in meeting with residents in Tampa’s hard-hit communities to address violent crime. The next chief will need to show the same priority, and offer a clear vision for policing.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.