Tampa mogul Blake Casper is running on a pro-police platform

TAMPA — Blake Casper says he prefers not to criticize Bill Carlson, but he decided to challenge the South Tampa City Council member, in part, because of what he said is Carlson’s strained relationship with the Tampa Police Department.

One sign that the District 4 race might meet widely held expectations of a wild, hard-fought contest? Former police chief Brian Dugan, a vocal critic of Carlson, will appear at Casper’s Feb. 2 campaign kickoff at the Oxford Exchange, which Casper owns.

Casper belongs to a powerful South Tampa family that last year announced the sale of its McDonald’s franchises. He has more time now, he said Tuesday, to devote to public service.

“It was my own decision as far as: ‘How I can help out? I think I can help specifically in District 4, knowing that district as well as I do, having lived in the district for 35 years, pretty much all my life,” said Casper, 49.

Casper said he supports “smart development,” which he defines as projects that are held to high standards and contribute to the neighborhood’s quality of life. He also cited traffic and transportation issues as an interest.

But, law and order will be his first priority, Casper said.

“Law and order, supporting our men and women, our first responders, is very important to me. It’s important to rest of the South Tampa community. That’s first and foremost,” Casper said, noting that he thought Dugan “was an excellent police chief.”

Dugan and Carlson don’t like each other. Dugan frequently criticizes Carlson, dubbing him “Bullet Bill” for Carlson’s 2020 vote against approving shooting range ammunition for the police department.

Asked if Carlson hadn’t been supportive of the police, Casper demurred. “I think it’s supporting our men and women in uniform. I think it boils down to that,” he said.

Carlson said suggestions that he doesn’t support law and order are “laughable,” noting he voted against Castor’s budget, which includes the police budget, last fall because it was wasteful, but supported the police portion. He said he supports pay increases for police officers and hiring 200 officers to help reduce crime.

He linked Casper to Castor and former mayor Bob Buckhorn, suggesting his entry into the race was coordinated with their “people.” That is likely to be a theme in the race, that Casper is part of a proxy war between Castor and the council.

“In this environment, being linked to Castor and Buckhorn isn’t a plus,” Carlson said.

Castor has said she will very likely support Casper. Buckhorn and Carlson have feuded for years. In a text Wednesday, the former mayor said he “enthusiastically” endorses Casper.

“Crime is skyrocketing across the city. Current officers are overworked and overstressed. You’d think a former police chief could solve the crime problem, but that’s not happening,” Carlson said.

Casper has deep pockets but acknowledged the short six-week campaign would be challenging. He said he doesn’t have a specific amount of money that he’s willing to spend, but he’s willing to do whatever it takes.

“I’m assuming these aren’t congressional races, but I don’t know what it’s going to cost. I think whatever it takes to get my message out. That’s really to me the measurement: getting it across to the voter,” he said.

Since 2000, Casper, a registered Republican who lives in Davis Islands, has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to an array of candidates either individually or through his company, the vast majority of them Republican. That has included more than $200,000 to Gov. Ron DeSantis. He’s given thousands of dollars to Democrat U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. Casper also donated at least $3,500 to Jane Castor’s 2019 mayoral campaign, $2,000 to Carlson’s City Council campaign that same year, and to a who’s-who list of local politicians of both parties.

Casper said he looks forward to debating Carlson, whom he acknowledges is up to speed on city business.

“I don’t know the issues as well as Bill does. He’s been doing this for the last four years. But I can bring my experience and why I think I can be an asset,” Casper said.