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Mayor Jane Castor’s relationship with Tampa’s Black communities? The jury’s still out.

Tampa Bay Times 3/10/2023 Charlie Frago, Sue Carlton, Langston Taylor, Tampa Bay Times
Mayor Jane Castor greets onlookers during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Tampa last year. The mayor has had some stumbles in her first term, but Black leaders mostly praise her willingness to listen to their concerns. © Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times/TNS Mayor Jane Castor greets onlookers during the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Tampa last year. The mayor has had some stumbles in her first term, but Black leaders mostly praise her willingness to listen to their concerns.

TAMPA — Gloria Sterrex worked to help get Jane Castor elected mayor in 2019.

But this year on Election Day, Sterrex sat outside the polling precinct at Ragan Park in East Tampa, waving a sign for the lone Black City Council member, Orlando Gudes, who clashed with the mayor in her first term.

After four years, Sterrex, 75, said opinions of Castor in the Black community vary. Some say the mayor helped them. Others say they “don’t want to get into the thick of it, but she hasn’t done what she was supposed to do,” Sterrex said.

As Castor readies for her second term after winning 80% of the vote Tuesday against a write-in candidate, that ambivalence is echoed by Black leaders. Many praise Castor for her responsiveness amid some stumbles during her first term. Others question her commitment to the Black community.

All agree there’s work to be done.

More than a dozen leaders and residents interviewed said in the next four years they would like to see Castor focus on affordable housing, less gentrification and better community outreach. Above all, they say, is ensuring Black residents, who according to the U.S. Census Bureau make up 22% of the city’s population, aren’t trailing behind Tampa’s upward swing.

“It’s a big city, it’s growing like mad,” said former Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller. “But you’ve got to realize one of the sections you represent has been deprived for so long. And has not changed a whole lot.”

Castor’s faced some of her toughest criticism from Black leaders during her first term.

The NAACP criticized the mayor’s connection to a 2021 U.S. Department of Justice investigation into a now-defunct program to encourage landlords to evict tenants who had been arrested.

Castor said recently that the housing program was effective in reducing crime in some apartment complexes. “I will always stand up for our community and try to do everything I can to keep people from becoming victims of crime,” she said.

Bishop Michelle Patty said the programs haven’t damaged the mayor among Black residents. “It didn’t play anywhere because law-abiding citizens don’t want people breaking into their cars. Black people don’t want people running amok in their community,” said Patty, a Castor supporter.

But former City Council member Frank Reddick noted “a tremendous outburst in the community about that. I think the administration came back and modified their policies because of that outburst.”

Concerns about equity reached a low boil last year over a project to build a massive municipal complex in East Tampa. Black contractors complained that the city had not rebid a $10 million contract when the mayor decided to expand its scope to nearly $120 million and house hundreds of city workers.

Castor didn’t back down, but the mayor and contractor DPR agreed to step up minority hiring on the project, scheduled to be completed in late summer. Black leaders who protested the mayor’s initial decision say she listened.

“Where we have seen some missed opportunities with what should have maybe been done better — making sure there is equity and opportunities for Black-owned companies to participate — we haven’t experienced any pushback from the mayor on these discussions,” said James Ransom, a board member at the Tampa Organization of Black Affairs. “She responds immediately.”

Castor noted the “record high” minority participation in the project, though that figure has been disputed by some. Hillsborough Urban League President and CEO Stanley Gray said the real test of equity is the percentage of total project dollars that end up in Black people’s pockets, not the percentage of labor performed.

Castor called the City Center “an excellent project, and it will pay dividends to our community and to our residents for decades to come.”

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP, has had a contentious relationship with the mayor. She said Castor listens but hasn’t turned that openness into action yet. The mayor hasn’t met with her since June, Lewis said, and “shuns” the national civil rights group.

“I would love to see more community engagement with action behind it,” Lewis said.

The mayor disagrees with that assessment, saying she’s sorry that steps she’s taken haven’t “resonated” with Lewis.

Another point of contention: the city’s recent handling of the auction of the historic Black burial ground Memorial Park Cemetery. A property flipper purchased the cemetery in an online auction the city didn’t monitor.

Miller said no one knew about it until they read it in the news.

“It was not communicated well,” said Reddick. “Now the pressure is on the mayor’s office to rectify that problem. And a lot of Black folks are upset about it.”

Castor’s first term was marked by fractious relationships with certain City Council members, including Gudes, who represented East Tampa before he lost a close race Tuesday.

”If I was the mayor, I would find a way to meet with the council members more on a regular basis so you can try to avoid those public issues that come before the council,” said Reddick. “And see if you can build a better rapport with those council members.”

Much is riding on who will be the next police chief. Castor’s last pick, Mary O’Connor, resigned last year after she was caught on body cam video flashing her badge and asking a deputy who pulled her husband over to let them go. The mayor has said she plans to start a national search this year.

”The police chief appointment is going to be important,” Miller said. “The Black community tried to tell her Chief O’Connor was not the person for that job.”

Castor has pointed to a list of accomplishments, including a record number of high-ranking Black officials in her administration. She says city spending on Black-owned businesses has increased 750% since 2020 and touts raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for part-time city workers and increased job opportunities through apprenticeship programs.

The mayor said she’s always trying to improve her outreach and communication and is open to suggestions on how to do better.

“I was elected mayor to serve everyone in our community. And that’s what I’ve done for four years. And that’s what I’ll continue to do for four more,” she said.

Although Castor won in a landslide in 2019 against philanthropist David Straz Jr., she didn’t do nearly as well in majority-Black precincts then — a fact she recently credited to unrealistic promises made by Straz.

But on Tuesday, the mayor performed better in heavily Black neighborhoods.

She netted 90% in precincts where a majority of registered voters are Black. Her worst neighborhoods were whiter areas in South Tampa.

Fellow citywide candidate Janet Cruz, whom Castor endorsed and who is the mother of Castor’s domestic partner, also fared better in parts of Tampa with more Black voters. Cruz, who finished second in her crowded District 3 race with less than 40% of the vote, won outright majorities in heavily Black neighborhoods in East Tampa and Highland Pines.

Darryl Rouson, who represents a Black-majority state Senate district within the city of Tampa, says he doesn’t think the mayor has done anything “to be crucified for.”

“I do think that ultimately, at the end of the day, she cares about Tampa and cares about every neighborhood,” he said. “And she really wants to do good for everybody.”

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