TAMPA — Ana Cruz has heard the whisper campaign about what it will look like if her partner, Jane Castor, wins the mayoral election April 23.
Cruz, a powerful lobbyist, would be in a position to influence development, city contracts and other big-money scores at City Hall.
The reality is far different, Cruz says. She says she won't do any lobbying involving the city, a position echoed by Castor.
What about the perception that Cruz could still steer lucrative city business to clients of her firm, Ballard Partners?
TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: 2019 Tampa Mayor's Race
The firm's president Brian Ballard sent out a company-wide memo on Feb. 6 saying Cruz wouldn't be involved in any city business nor would she profit from any business done with the city.
"If Jane Castor is elected as the next Mayor of Tampa, Ana Cruz will NOT lobby or ask anyone else to lobby, the City of Tampa, Office of the Mayor or City Departments, nor will Ana Cruz profit from any business with the City for the entire duration of Jane Castor's term(s) in office," Ballard wrote.
Cruz, 46, bridles at the idea that she would behave unethically. It comes down to trust, she said.
"People know and trust Jane, and people know — and I want to say — they trust me,'' Cruz said. "I've run a very professional career.''
Castor, 59, a retired Tampa police chief, has addressed the issue during the campaign, saying she wouldn't tolerate even the appearance of impropriety in her administration if she's elected. She declined a request for an interview with the Times but her campaign released a statement:
"My decisions have always been made based on the issue of right or wrong and, just as importantly, the appearance of right and wrong. As such, no one in my family will lobby or profit from doing business with the city while I am in the Office of the Mayor," the statement reads.
Until recently, Castor's opponent, David Straz, had largely avoided the issue. Then an affiliated political organization sent out a mailer linking Castor through Cruz to President Donald Trump.
The mailer suggests that Ballard's fundraising and his firm's lobbying for Trump during the 2016 campaign creates a link between the president and Castor.
Straz voted for Trump in 2016. He has repeatedly apologized for doing so.
At a televised debate last week, Straz broached the issue again.
"They have a good-old boy network in the city, starting from (Mayor Bob) Buckhorn and Castor and her partner, who's a lobbyist. It's an awful thing. They don't like anything that's negative. They call it negative. But when I go after them...and I say I'm going to get in there and take the cheese away from the mice? They don't like it," Straz said.
While Cruz said she won't lobby City Hall, other members of the Ballard firm won't operate under a similar restriction. Cruz portrayed that arrangement as unfortunate for her colleagues because their work will come under increased scrutiny.
"We're never going to do anything to jeopardize Jane's integrity that she has built up for over 31 years in this community. I would never put her in that position," Cruz said.
Campaign finance records show that Castor's political action committee has received at least $15,000 in contributions from HNTB this cycle. HNTB is one of a handful of current or former Ballard Partners clients that have given to Castor.
But Cruz said there is no connection between Castor's fundraising and Ballard's clients.
"If my firm or I really wanted to be incredibly influential from a state perspective, I could have Ballard send down a bunch of money and shake the trees for her. But that's not been the case," Cruz said.
Incoming City Council member Bill Carlson, a public relations executive who has butted heads with Cruz in the past, said he agrees that Ballard has a right to lobby the city. Council members, he said, shouldn't be influenced by who the lobbyist is.
"I would vote for the best project. Not because someone I liked or didn't like was involved with it," Carlson said.
One risk for Castor is that she doesn't vote on projects. And her decisions on whether to advance a project to a council vote won't be as transparent or public.
Council member Harry Cohen, who was eliminated from the mayor's race in March, said he recused himself when his father, developer Gary Cohen, had business before the city. He said it was a simple rule to follow and happened in full public view.
Castor won't be as lucky.
"Overall, you have to have an ethical compass, you have to be always be on the lookout for things and when they come up, you have to say I won't be a part of that," Cohen said.
Former Tampa City Attorney Julia Mandell said it's nearly impossible to make a blanket statement over how Castor, if elected, should navigate the possible ethical risks of her relationship with Cruz.
The mayor has next to no power in land-use matters. That's City Council's wheelhouse. But the mayor has much more leeway in real estate contracts. It really comes down to the specifics of each case, Mandell said.
That said, a lobbyist as a life partner is probably less risky than having a significant relationship with a construction executive that does a lot of business with the city, she said.
"If done properly, it's a manageable matter," said Mandell, a shareholder with Gray Robinson, a Tampa law firm. "It comes down to perception. And a perception matter really is a political matter."
The Florida Code of Ethics bars using a public position for personal gain. It's also against the rules for a public official to disclose information gleaned in office that might be of personal benefit.
The Florida Commission on Ethics has not faced a case involving a relationship like the one between Cruz and Castor, said commission spokeswoman Kerrie Stillman.
If Cruz and Castor want to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest, said J. Edwin Benton, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, Cruz should take the steps alluded to in the Ballard memo. She shouldn't do business with the city and she shouldn't talk city business with her Ballard colleagues.
But even if Cruz totally divests herself of city business — as she says she plans to — it may not stop political enemies from asking questions about Castor's connections to Tampa lobbyists, Benton said.
"Who's to say that (Cruz and her colleagues) won't talk off the record to one another about things they shouldn't?" he said. At a certain point, the public will have to trust that Cruz and Castor won't abuse their positions.
Luckily, Benton said, because of the public nature of their relationship, there is little incentive for Cruz and Castor to misuse Tampa's highest office.
"Only stupid people would cross that line with everybody looking over your shoulder," he said.