It's decision time for Tampa voters. After eight weeks, dozens of forums, scores of promises and (for David Straz) millions of dollars, the seven candidates for Tampa mayor head into Election Day on Tuesday having defined themselves - for better or for worse. In this crowded field, former Tampa police Chief Jane Castor continues to stand out for her experience, competence and character. She remains the best choice to lead Florida's third-largest city.
The sheer number of candidates and public appearances have made this campaign something of an unfocused slog. With the many faces and the haze of big money, few candidates beyond Castor and City Council member Harry Cohen have distinguished themselves from the pack with their vision, skill sets and compelling agendas. Castor, 59, is a Tampa native who rose through the police department’s ranks to become the city’s first female police chief in 2009. Before retiring in 2015, she presided over a 70 percent reduction in major crimes, laying the foundation for a safer and more prosperous city. As mayor, Castor would build on her achievements by investing in neighborhoods and essential public services. She also understands the importance of engaging the arts and nonprofits to enrich civic life.
Castor’s decades in city government, sense of responsibility and unflappable nature would ensure continuity inside City Hall. Mayor Bob Buckhorn and his predecessor, Pam Iorio, who appointed Castor chief, ably guided the city through the recession, setting the table for Tampa's recovery. With downtown and the neighborhoods enjoying dynamic growth, the next mayor needs to keep the momentum going by keeping city finances strong, paying attention to the neighborhoods and signalling confidence to the private sector. Castor did all these things running the city's biggest department, and there is every reason to believe she would continue that as mayor.
Campaigns are auditions, and the past several months have provided more clarity about who could capably serve as mayor and who could not. While many candidates in this race are saying similar things, some are trying to have it both ways - embracing Tampa's prosperity while calling for a new direction at City Hall. Though this is her first run for elected office, Castor has navigated politics and policy with depth and maturity. Unlike Straz, another first-time candidate, she has not made wild accusations about corruption, pandered to black voters or blustered over her unfamiliarity with some city issues. Castor has acknowledged making mistakes as chief and promises to surround herself with a strong management team. Her self-confidence, direct approach and respectful style give her presence and gravity.
Contrast that approach with Straz, who has far outspent anyone else and run a reckless campaign. Straz has made unsubstantiated accusations about city corruption without offering specifics. He has demanded an investigation of some sort of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, the developer of the $3 billion Water Street Tampa project that will transform downtown. He displayed an astounding lack of understanding about the city budget and other issues, and he has pandered to black voters.
Tampa faces no immediate crises. The finances are stable, crime is low and growth seems on a sustainable path. The big issue this campaign is maintaining the course - further enlivening downtown, expanding the jobs base and improving the neighborhoods' quality of life. The mayoral candidates also generally take a more expansive view of what the next mayor's priorities should be, from helping to improve schools to building more affordable housing. Castor has a practical strategy for addressing all of these concerns. She also recognizes that the region's largest city has a leadership role to play in a metropolitan area with 3 million people and growing.
Tampa voters have several credible choices for mayor on Tuesday. But only one candidate has spent her entire professional history in service to the city. Castor understands Tampa's many very different neighborhoods - and a mayor's obligation to serve them equally. She has run a positive campaign appealing to the ideals of fairness and inclusion. She is a forward thinker with a steady hand who throughout her public service has brought people together. That experience and character would well serve a city fast emerging on the national stage.