Top 10 political stories in Tampa Bay of 2022

As 2022 comes to a close and we prepare to welcome a fresh start in 2023, it’s a good time to look back at just how much has transpired in Tampa Bay politics over the past 12 months.

Some of the year’s top stories are still fresh, others feel like they happened ages ago. As we all know, the news cycle is rapidly churning and it’s easy to forget even some of the most important headlines. 

This year ushered in the city of St. Petersburg’s first Black Mayor. It saw a nearly unprecedented removal from office. There was a red wave and a flurry of controversy.

So in the spirit of bidding adieux to 2022, here is a rundown of the top 10 political news stories this year in the Tampa Bay area.

Andrew Warren suspension

On the morning of August 4, then State Attorney in Hillsborough County Warren, received word he was being abruptly removed from office by order of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

DeSantis suspended Warren, who was twice elected to the office, citing two pledges Warren signed as well as internal policies not to prosecute certain low-level misdemeanors unless public safety was at risk. The two pledges included one vowing not to prosecute abortion cases and another to refuse prosecution against doctors performing gender reassignment surgery.

The move drew instant outrage from Democrats (Warren is a Democrat) who viewed the suspension as an overreach of executive power and a slap in the face to voters who sent Warren to office. But it was not only partisans who took issue with the move. Legal scholars also condemned DeSantis’ action, including 115 who specialize in legal ethics, professional responsibility and criminal procedure who joined an amicus curiae brief denouncing Warren’s suspension.

And Warren didn’t take it lying down. He sued to be reinstated, arguing largely that DeSantis lacked the authority to remove a duly elected official over his exercising his right to free speech. The trial concluded Dec. 2 and the decision is expected any day.

What to watch into 2023? Warren’s replacement, Susan Lopez, has said she intends to run for the office in 2024. How that shakes out may be a question with a lot of variables, including whether Warren is reinstated and the direction of political winds.

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On one hand, Republicans are fresh off a red wave (more on that later) and support from DeSantis could bode well. On the other, Democrats will likely be motivated to undo losses suffered in the 2022 Midterms. So, stay tuned.

Ken Welch becomes St. Pete’s first Black Mayor (and lots of other stuff)

Welch, a Democrat, defeated Republican Robert Blackmon soundly in St. Pete’s November 2021 municipal election. He was inaugurated Jan. 6 (in a private ceremony from his home as he recovered from COVID-19) and became the city’s first Black Mayor.

The history-making moment was heralded as progress for the city’s Black community and 2021 began with boosted emphasis on equity in low-income and minority communities, a top pillar in Welch’s administration.

He made several moves, most considered controversial, to align with his vision for equity. Early in his new administration, Welch announced he was ordering a community and economic impact study of Albert Whitted Airport to determine its best use for the benefit of all residents, a move seen by some as a way to ensure equitable use of city assets but by others as a way to revive conversations about closing the airfield. 

Likewise, Welch also announced, in June, he was canceling the city’s Request for Proposals process conducted during his predecessor’s administration. With that cancellation came also the breakup with Midtown, the development team tapped to redevelop the 86-acre site. Welch cited, among other reasons, the need to add equitable redevelopment to the site’s future. He also rebranded the project, ditching the long-used “trop site” for the Historic Gas Plant District, a nod to its history as a once-booming Black community.

And like many administrations, Welch has had some growing pains. Perhaps the most controversial came in late August, when then-Communications Director Janelle Irwin Taylor, a top appointed member of Welch’s staff, resigned without notice citing a hostile work environment created by Welch’s Deputy Mayor, Stephanie Owens. Owens resigned the next day.

Shortly after, the Tampa Bay Times reported Welch was largely absent from City Hall based on data obtained from the Mayor’s swipe card that allows city employees to enter the building. They also reported he, unlike other top-level city officials, did not stay at the city’s emergency operations facility during Hurricane Ian.

Since then though, the administration has been a little quieter. Welch eliminated the Deputy Mayor post and instead elevated senior advisor Doyle Walsh to Chief of Staff and hired two new staffers to manage communications. 

That is until December, when Welch’s administration fired two directors, a third resigned effective immediately and another manager was also let go. Welch gave no reason for the dismissals, saying the city doesn’t comment on personnel matters. But the departures fueled more speculation about turmoil within City Hall.

What to watch in 2023? Come Jan. 7, Welch will be in his second year and passed any window where staffing changes or other missteps could be reasonably blamed on working out transition kinks. Further, a decision on a developer is expected early in the year for the trop site. And there’s still no word on that Albert Whitted study.

Tampa City Council strife

2022 has been a rocky year for Tampa City Council, particularly in March.

First, then-City Council member John Dingfelder resigned following a settlement between him and a local development consultant, Stephen Michelini, over a public records lawsuit accusing Dingfelder of intimidation and improper communication of public information. 

Then, City Council member Orlando Gudes was accused of sexual harassment, prompting him to resign his position as City Council Chair.

In late March, the city of Tampa released findings from a seven-month probe into allegations against Gudes from a former aide claiming he made derogatory comments about her appearance, commented on her teenage daughter’s breast size, made homophobic comments about Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and referred to a City Council colleague as a p***y mother f***er. 

The probe found the allegations credible, though no charges were filed. Gudes never resigned his position on Council, but Castor said after the investigation that if she had the power to fire him, she would. 

That is all on top of what many view as ongoing dysfunction on City Council that pits warring factions against one another — those who support Castor’s agenda and those who don’t. Gudes, along with Dingfelder’s appointed replacement, Lynn Hurtak, and Bill Carlson are in the anti-Castor camp. Joe Citro, Charlie Miranda, Luis Viera and, at least recently, Guido Maniscalco, tend to support Castor’s administrative priorities. 

The result has been at times contentious City Council meetings, including one that devolved into a tense shouting match. At issue at the early November meeting was a proposal to change the city charter to require the Mayor to name an interim department head, which would remain under the interim title until City Council approval, a move that would ostensibly roll back executive power. The measure failed, along the Castor/Not Castor lines.

What to watch in 2023? All City Council races are on the ballot. Hurtak will appear on the ballot for the first time and is running, in addition to other candidates, against former state Sen. Janet Cruz in what will likely be an expensive race. Cruz’s daughter, lobbyist Ana Cruz, is Castor’s long-time partner. Gudes will also likely face a reckoning at the ballot box as he faces opposition from three challengers, including Jeffrey Rhodes who narrowly lost to Gudes in 2019 by just over 150 votes.

Tampa Police Chief controversies

Mayor Castor tapped a former assistant chief to head the Tampa Police Department in early February.

Mary O’Connor’s hiring was instantly controversial. She was selected over interim Chief RubenButchDelgado and Miami Police Department Assistant Chief Cherise Gause.

Her hire came despite a 1995 incident when O’Connor was new to the Tampa Police Department. Her boyfriend at the time, whom she later married, Keith O’Connor, was arrested during a traffic stop. Mary O’Connor, then Mary Minter, became belligerent when officers attempted to perform a sobriety test on Keith O’Connor. Police reports show that after Mary Minter was placed in a patrol car to calm down, she kicked windows and struck a deputy on the shoulder. She was arrested on charges of battery on a law enforcement officer, obstruction and disorderly intoxication. She pleaded no contest and was fired, though she was later reinstated. 

But the controversy didn’t end there. Creative Loafing first reported on body footage from Nov. 12 showing O’Connor and her husband during a traffic stop in Oldsmar.

In the video, O’Connor is seen flashing her badge and heard identifying herself as the Tampa Police Chief and asking a deputy to “just let us go tonight.” 

She was suspended following the Dec. 1 report and resigned on Dec. 5.

What to watch in 2023? Expect a national search for a new Chief to conclude and new conversations about leadership needs on a police force that has seen its share of controversy … not to mention national headlines.

Mixed bag of referendums

Voters across the Tampa Bay region weighed in on several referendums in November, which saw mixed outcomes.

The most high-profile, the Hillsborough County All For Transportation redux, failed after headline-grabbing court cases.

Supporters worked to put the 1% transportation tax back on the ballot in 2022, after it was successful two years prior, but struck down as unconstitutional in court. The campaign made only minor tweaks to the language, with the biggest difference, and the cure for the courts, being that it was placed on the ballot by the Hillsborough County Commission instead of through voter petition.

Nevertheless, it faced another legal battle, this time from conservative activist Karen Jaroch who sued to block the referendum arguing the referendum language was misleading. 

A judge ruled in Jaroch’s favor in October, signaling the beginning of the end for the All For Transportation campaign. The ruling came after ballots had already been printed, meaning the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections would post notices at the ballot box about the ruling. But the County Commission appealed the ruling, prompting the campaign to move forward and educate voters that they could, indeed, cast their ballot on the measure.

Yet with all of the back and forth, it’s possible some voters may have skipped that bubble thinking it was a canceled ballot initiative. It’s also possible the measure, which failed with just 48% of the vote, might have died anyway. Transportation sales tax initiatives typically enjoy the most support from Democrats, who suffered devastating losses up and down the ballot in Hillsborough County and elsewhere throughout the state. A similar referendum in Orlando also failed.

Also on the ballot in St. Petersburg were four ballot initiatives. All passed, and two have significant implications. 

One referendum question asked voters whether to amend the 99-year lease between the city and the Dali Museum needed for the museum to move forward with its planned expansion. It passed with 78% of the vote and allows additional land to be included in the lease.

A charter amendment rescheduling municipal elections in the city also earned approval. It changes City Council and mayoral races from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years, to coincide with presidential and Midterm cycles that supporters expect to increase voter turnout for local races and initiatives. Its approval means Mayor Welch will get an extra year on his term. 

The other approved charter amendment realigns City Council residency requirements with redistricting. The fourth referendum allows City Council to grant property tax exemptions to new businesses and expansions of existing businesses who meet certain job creation requirements.

Finally, Clearwater voters, with 66% of the vote, approved a referendum there paving the way for new development downtown. The planned $400 million development at the former Harvorview Center site is expected to include 600 apartments, a 158-key hotel, dining and retail space, a conference center, event space and a rooftop bar. The city needed voter approval to sell the property to the developer without a bidding process.

What to watch in 2023? Expect updates on the Clearwater development as developers move forward with their newly greenlit plan. But the biggest question is in Hillsborough, where local officials will grapple with meeting underfunded transportation needs without the benefit of the new revenue under All For Transportation most had hoped for.

Tampa Bay’s red wave

In a damning turn of events for local Democrats, voters flipped a Pinellas County congressional district a Hillsborough County state Senate District and both the Pinellas and Hillsborough County Commissions.

The most shocking of the flips was what turned out to be a red tsunami on the Hillsborough County Commission. Two Democratic incumbents — Mariella Smith and Kimberly Overman — were unseated by Republicans, handing the GOP a 4-3 majority on the board.

That’s a big deal in blue Hillsborough, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 52,000 voters, accounting for 37% of the electorate compared to just 31% for Republicans. Before the Nov. 8 election, Democrats held a 5-2 majority on the board.

Worse for the party, both Smith and Overman lost by a lot — Smith by more than 5 percentage points and Overman by nearly as much. Both out-raised their opponents by nearly $200,000.

Also in Hillsborough, former Sen. Janet Cruz, a Democrat, lost her seat to DeSantis-backed Republican Jay Collins. While her loss wasn’t quite as much of a shock — Tampa-based Senate District 14 is a swing district — the vote margin was. Cruz lost by about 10 percentage points.

That’s despite a slight advantage in the district for Democrats, at 36% of the electorate for 34%, and a massive funding advantage. Cruz topped $2 million raised between her campaign and affiliated committee, while Collins brought in far less than $1 million. Collins’ victory was part of a statewide red wave that handed the GOP a supermajority in the upper chamber.

Across the Bay in Pinellas County, Democrat Pat Gerard lost her seat on the Pinellas County Commission to Republican Brian Scott by about 8 percentage points, shifting the commission from a 4-3 advantage for Democrats to a 4-3 majority for the GOP. 

Unlike in Hillsborough County races where Democrats’ races were theirs to lose, Gerard was already vulnerable. Republicans hold a voter registration advantage in the county of about 10,000 registered voters. Also unlike Hillsborough races, the fundraising game was tight, with Gerard only slightly edging Scott in funding. 

The blue blood didn’t stop flowing there. Democrats also suffered a blow in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, which was previously held by Democrat Charlie Crist who left office to run for Governor.

Eric Lynn earned the Democratic nomination for the seat without opposition, clearing the way for him to focus all of his campaign resources on defeating the GOP nominee in the November General Election. But that advantage wasn’t enough to carry him over the finish line, ultimately losing to Anna Paulina Luna by nearly 10 percentage points. 

But again, the writing was on the wall. Lynn had a cleared path to the nomination only because other candidates dropped from the race after redistricting handed a solid advantage to the GOP under the new map, which shifted boundaries north and cut out Democratic-leaning areas in south Pinellas. The shift gave the GOP a nearly 31,000 voter advantage in the district, which under the previous map, had held a slight advantage for Democrats.

Lynn also faced a fundraising disadvantage, raising more than $3 million for the race compared to Lynn’s $2 million.

What to watch in 2023? Smarting from the sting of a devastating Midterm Election cycle, Democrats may rally for 2024, a presidential year that will likely draw bigger voter turnout and an opportunity to reclaim lost ground. If Democrats can turn out voters in 2024, they stand a decent shot at reclaiming both County Commission seats and SD 14. Democrats in Pinellas may have a harder time without robust efforts to boost voter registration within their party.

Ron DeSantis puts his finger on Pinellas Education

The Pinellas County School Board welcomed two new, DeSantis-aligned members after November’s Midterm Election — Stephanie Meyer and Dawn Peters.

Peters took the District 3 seat with 52.06% of the vote. She faced Keesha Benson, who received 48% of the vote.

Meyer won the District 6 seat, taking 53% of the vote to her opponent Brian Martin’s 47%.

Both candidates were endorsed by the hyper-conservative “parental rights” group Pinellas Chapter of Moms for Liberty. The controversial, national nonprofit was founded in Brevard County to support “parental rights” in public schools, focusing on culture war issues and spearheading book bans.

And DeSantis had its back, endorsing most of the same candidates the group backed, with most of those securing election.

Peters, though, was perhaps the most shocking victory locally. The hyper-conservative drew sharp criticism over a handful of social media posts in 2020 linking her to QAnon and related conspiracy theories, according to reporting from the Tampa Bay Times. 

Images appeared to show Peters joining others in making the “QAnon pledge,” which vows devotion to defend the Constitution and includes the QAnon slogan, “were we go one, we go all.” But if that seems innocuous, consider the group is known for promoting wild conspiracy theories.

In that vein, Peters’ social media posts also included a retweet calling the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on American soil hoaxes. 

She later clarified that she doesn’t believe the attack was a hoax and said she was not a conspiracy theorist. She further told the Times she had “no idea” if three historic events were fake and said people should “think for themselves.” She also told the outlet she doesn’t “know what a QAnon oath is.”

Her win baffled those who reject QAnon and its conspiracies and came despite being grossly underfunded in the race — Benson brought in more than $134,000 while Peters raised just over $42,000.

What to watch in 2023? With Peters’ and Meyers’ victories, the Pinellas County School Board now has strong contingent of members, which also includes Lisa Cane, who support Gov. DeSantis’ education policies, including the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law he pushed and ongoing efforts to boost “parental control.” Look for actions — or reactions — on the school board further cracking down on civics and history curriculum and other DeSantis-aligned philosophies.

Affordable housing, or lack thereof

The Tampa metro area is among one of the most expensive in the nation for housing, according to research from Florida Atlantic University. It ranks 7th most expensive in the nation, a mere smidge behind Lakeland at No. 6. Cape Coral, Palm Bay and Deltona are all in the top 5, as of October data. 

So it comes as little surprise that affordable housing solutions, and demands, dominated headlines throughout much of 2022.

The conversation, largely driven by the St. Pete Tenants Union — a group that has been pushing hard for rent control and is populated by at least one self-described communist — has centered on what officials on both sides of the Bay have described as out-of-reach rent control measures.

Why out of reach? Florida law has strict — and potentially litigious — rules governing rent control, which requires first a statement proclaiming a housing state of emergency, followed by a voter referendum. The provisions can only be on the books for one year, and the fine print means cities and localities face potentially costly litigation over myriad possible violations, provisions St. Pete attorneys called “poison pills.” On top of that, City Council members in St. Pete, at the height of rent control discussion, argued the time it would take to implement temporary rent control (or rent stabilization as they called it) would allow landlords to take advantage of a loophole that defines luxury housing by boosting rents to meet that standard, thus removing them from restrictions and having the opposite effect for renters by actually increasing prices. 

Still, elected officials in both Tampa and St. Pete faced strong public backlash for what was seen as an unwillingness to respond to a housing market that was pricing people out of even the most modest housing. The Tenants Union posted protests in both cities and, in St. Pete, even hosted an overnight sleep-in across from City Hall before storming a Council meeting with demands.

The group is also calling on 2023 budgets to nix public safety funding for police in favor of more robust social services, including access to public housing.

Yet officials feel largely hamstrung by an unrelenting market and onerous state preemption. 

Some progress unfolded in 2022. The city of St. Pete expanded its down payment assistance program and ventured into partnerships with developers to include more affordable and workforce housing alongside market-rate housing. 

In Tampa, the city approved a revised budget that includes more than $20 million for affordable housing initiatives. Like St. Pete, they also have a down payment assistance program to promote home ownership.

What to expect in 2023? With funds limited, much attention at the institutional level has been placed on increasing housing stock to drive market rates down to sustainable levels. Officials are also looking at changes to zoning and other land use codes to make affordable housing attractive to developers to meet that goal. In Tampa, with all City Council seats up for election in the new year, expect solutions to be a big campaign item for candidates, both incumbents touting actions already taken and challengers floating new ideas. 

USF’s new prez

The University of South Florida hired its eighth president this year, tapping a founding USF trustee for the top job.

Rhea Law was first selected in 2021 as interim president to lead the institution following former President Steven Currall’s departure. By March 2022, the Florida Board of Governors had tapped her for the job permanently.

Initially, Law had no intention of seeking the post on a permanent basis. When former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford recommended her for the interim task, he requested that she not throw her name in the hat. A few months in, he changed his mind.

“It didn’t take three months for me to realize president Law had an uncanny ability to lead our university,” he said, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Law landed an impressive compensation package totaling $1.1 million, ranking her as one of the highest earning university presidents in the nation and on par with compensation packages for presidents of Florida’s other large universities.

Tampa residents know Law for her years as a top business leader, one who worked her way through the ranks, from land-use attorney to president of Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney and, after it merged, as president at Fowler White Boggs.

Since taking the helm, Law has managed a number of successes for USF, which is experiencing record new enrollment and is the fastest growing university in the U.S., according to U.S. News and World Report.

Her accomplishments include progress on a new campus stadium, an ask long in the works for the school; a new strategic plan; a committee to evaluate a forest preserve; and management of millions of dollars in donations to the school.

What to watch in 2023? Long overshadowed by Florida’s more mature institutions at the University of Florida in Gainesville and Florida State University in Tallahassee, USF continues to move up in rankings nationwide. It’s also operating under a new(ish) consolidation that puts regional campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota/Manatee under the same university umbrella. Law and university leaders, including regional chancellors, will likely look to continue that growth, adding new programs and expanding enrollment even further. 

Eckerd Connect woes

This one goes way back, even out of the purview of 2022. 

Back in late 2021, Eckerd Connects announced it was not seeking contract renewal with the Florida Department of Children and Families for its work in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

The private, state-funded organization provided foster and child services for DCF. But DCF said it was the one that severed ties with the organization.

It was the beginning of an explosive series of events, including a child pornography scandal. 

Last December, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it received more than a gigabyte of data from an Instagram account allegedly used to distribute sexually explicit images of children in Eckerd Connects foster care. 

A Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office also investigated in late 2021 and into 2022 allegations that Eckerd Connects foster kids were sleeping in “deplorable conditions.”

Fast forward to this summer, the organization laid off 176 workers associated with its pulling out of the DCF contract. 

But good news was on the horizon as a new contractor, Fort Meyers-based Children’s Network of Southwest Florida was coming to the rescue, taking control of the contracts beginning July 1. 

That group is now operating under several priorities, including reducing the number of kids in care, hiring and retaining more case managers, and launching an advertising campaign to attract new foster parents to the program, according to the Tampa Bay Times. 

Family Support Services, the group tapped to contract with DCF for foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties, is also in the midst of a campaign to attract new foster families and new child welfare workers. They took the helm there in late 2021.

What to watch in 2023? Well, let’s just see how they’re doing and continue to demand accountability for our most vulnerable kids.

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Callan Tansill

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