As a uniformed police officer in the early 1990s, Jane Castor pushed to create Tampa, Fla.’s first police liaison program for the LGBTQ community. Now, she sits on the precipice of becoming Tampa’s first queer mayor and the first lesbian to lead a Florida city.
It’s not something Castor made a central plank of her campaign. In a perfect world, Castor feels her sexual orientation wouldn’t be noteworthy at all. But as the candidate sits on the verge of history, she can’t ignore the significance.
“There is a responsibility and I fully understand that,” she says. “You want to be a role model for young people in the community. I want my tenure to be a statement that if you have the qualifications, work ethic and motivation, then you can do anything.”
The milestone certainly has the notice of pro-LGBTQ political forces at the state and national level.
“When Jane wins, she will be Tampa’s first LGBTQ mayor, the first LGBTQ woman to lead one of Florida’s largest cities and the only LGBTQ woman leading a major U.S. city in the southeast United States,” says Joe Saunders, Equality Florida senior political director. His group lists Castor’s election as the top political priority in 2019.
The Human Rights Campaign also took notice of Castor’s run.
“With over 30 years in public service, Jane Castor is a proven leader and problem solver who will stand up and fight for all of Tampa’s hardworking families,” says HRC National Field Director Marty Rouse after the group issued a rare endorsement in a municipal election.
Castor would love it if her successful decades on the police force, culminating in becoming the Tampa Police Department’s first female police chief in 2009, were what mattered more than any demographic consideration. But she knows better.
“One of the things I knew as the first female chief of police, if a male had failed in that position, they would say, ‘Oh, such and such couldn’t do it.’ He would be judged on an individual basis,” she says. “But if I failed, they would say, ‘I knew a woman couldn’t do it.’ I feel the same holds true here.”
Should she be elected mayor, Castor hopes history looks back and simply says she did a good job. That’s more important that being recalled as Tampa’s first lesbian mayor, she says.
Of course, she’s also spent much of her career fighting for the LGBTQ community to have a voice in the city. While she says Tampa — Florida's third-largest city — has always been a diverse and accepting community, she pushed for advances there; the liaison program stood as one of her top achievements before she became chief.
“The significance of having a relationship between law enforcement and any of the minority communities in in Tampa is very important,” she says. “The police are usually called when there's some type of a disagreement. Officers have to show up and decide who's right and who's wrong. Quite often people will feel that the decision was made because they belong to a certain class.”
Such liaisons have become commonplace nationwide, but the program broke ground in a Southern city in the 1990s.
Castor as an officer also rallied officers to volunteer and provide security for Tampa’s first Pride parades. And while nobody at that point complained about lesbians serving on the force, all the gay and bi male officers Castor knew remained closeted at work and in the public eye.
That’s not a problem nowadays, she says.
“The young people don't care,” she says. “They just want to know that you have the ability to do the job. And that's the way that it should be.”
And it seems likely voters don’t care either. Polls show Castor leading opponent David Straz by double digits heading into a mayoral runoff today. It's not hard to see why — in endorsing Castor, the Tampa Bay Times noted that crime dropped over 70 percent during her time as police chief. And while Straz, a prominent millionaire in the community, has spent heavily on ads criticizing Castor’s record, he hasn’t gone after her sexual orientation.
Indeed, Castor can’t recall any negative campaigning about her personally over the course of the campaign, outside “a few hateful emails.”
While Castor hasn’t flaunted her LGBTQ identity in the campaign, neither has she shied away from it in public life. Castor has lived for years with partner Ana Cruz, herself a prominent Democratic consultant. And the former police chief twice served as grand marshal for the Tampa Pride parade in the last five years.
Following another milestone election in Chicago of Lori Lightfoot as that city’s first queer mayor, some media voices already started calling 2019 the Year of the Lesbian Mayor. Madison, Wis., just elected Satya Rhodes-Conway as mayor there, and Jolie Justus earlier this month led a primary field of candidates running for mayor of Kansas City, Mo; the runoff happens in June.
Castor isn’t ready to declare 2019 as some momentous a year for lesbian-kind. “But I see the significance of where we are,” she says.