Tom Brady, Ron DeSantis and Ian: Florida’s biggest news stories of 2022

As the calendar turns anew, it’s time to wrap up the year that was.

Last week we counted down the first half of our list of the top 20 Florida and Tampa Bay news stories of 2022, as chosen by Tampa Bay Times journalists. This week it’s time for the top 10.

Once again, Gov. Ron DeSantis dominates the list.

In that way, this look back at 2022 on the first day of 2023 offers an early glimpse of 2024, when DeSantis may well be the Republican nominee — and possible frontrunner — for president. If that happens, the world will dissect the one-time Dunedin resident’s past 12 months, during which he took on Disney, elbowed for parents’ rights and flew a plane full of Texas migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.

Those three stories all made the first half of our top 20 list. Where will DeSantis pop up in the top 10?

Tampa Police Chief Mary O'Connor walks to the podium prior to a news conference on Oct. 24 in Tampa. O’Connor resigned her post in December after reports emerged that she encouraged an officer to "just let us go" after being stopped with her husband in a golf cart near their home in Oldsmar.
Tampa Police Chief Mary O’Connor walks to the podium prior to a news conference on Oct. 24 in Tampa. O’Connor resigned her post in December after reports emerged that she encouraged an officer to “just let us go” after being stopped with her husband in a golf cart near their home in Oldsmar. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

10. Tampa’s former police chief’s whirlwind year

Until this month, one of the biggest stories out of Tampa in 2022 was the controversial hiring of its 43rd police chief, Mary O’Connor, in February.

Many in the city, including two City Council members who voted against O’Connor’s confirmation, disagreed with Mayor Jane Castor’s decision to pick O’Connor, a former assistant chief at the department who retired in 2016. One of the issues was O’Connor’s arrest early in her career after she was accused of striking a deputy during a traffic stop. She was fired, successfully fought to get her job back and climbed the ranks. Castor said O’Connor had made the most of her second chance and was the right person to lead the department.

Just 10 months later, an even bigger story emerged, one that would make national headlines: O’Connor was out.

Castor asked for and received O’Connor’s resignation on Dec. 5 after an internal investigation found O’Connor violated department policies by flashing her badge during a traffic stop in Pinellas County and telling a sheriff’s deputy that she hoped he would “just let us go.” The deputy had stopped O’Connor and her husband Keith on Nov. 12 as Keith O’Connor was driving the couple’s golf cart without a license tag on a public road near their Oldsmar home.

— Amy Gehrt

University of South Florida president Rhea Law speaks as the university welcomes new Bulls head football coach Alex Golesh during a press conference at USF's Alumni Hall on Dec. 5.
University of South Florida president Rhea Law speaks as the university welcomes new Bulls head football coach Alex Golesh during a press conference at USF’s Alumni Hall on Dec. 5.

[ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

9. USF names Rhea Law president

After University of South Florida President Steve Currall resigned suddenly in July 2021 after just two years on the job, the school turned to a homegrown leader for stability.

Rhea Law, a prominent Tampa attorney with connections to the community and the Florida Legislature, was selected in March to be her alma mater’s eighth president.

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Law, 72, had served as interim president after Currall’s departure, and her steady performance in the seven months that followed convinced the USF board of trustees to stay the course. She received praise for her communication style, for easing tensions over plans to develop the USF Forest Preserve by taking that idea off the table, and for revving up efforts toward an on-campus stadium.

The tasks ahead include maintaining USF’s ascension in national rankings and hiring a new provost to lead the university’s academic endeavors. Law agreed to a three-year contract that will put her total annual compensation at just under $1.1 million.

— Divya Kumar

Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady waves to fans while walking off the field after the defefating the Philadelphia Eagles 31-15 on Jan. 16 in Tampa.
Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady waves to fans while walking off the field after the defefating the Philadelphia Eagles 31-15 on Jan. 16 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

8. Tom Brady retires, then un-retires

The most anticipated retirement in NFL history lasted barely more than a month — if it was even a retirement at all.

Days after the Bucs’ season ended in a disappointing playoff loss to the Rams, rumors began circulating that Tom Brady was ready to call it quits at age 44.

ESPN reported Jan. 29 that Brady had retired, although the Bucs said he had not yet made up his mind. Finally, on Feb. 2, Brady announced via social media that he was not prepared to make the “competitive commitment” to play any longer.

Curiously, however, Brady never used the word “retire” in the 957-word statement.

Forty days later, Brady announced that he had “unfinished business” and was returning to play for the Bucs in 2022. But even that was soon mired in controversy.

Bucs coach Bruce Arians stunningly announced his own retirement days later, with some suggesting Brady wanted a change in leadership. Not long after that, reports surfaced that Brady’s “retirement” might have been a strategy to force a trade to Miami.

No matter the machinations, Brady remained in Tampa Bay for his 23rd NFL season.

— John Romano

Protesters chant during an abortion protest on July 2 in Tampa.
Protesters chant during an abortion protest on July 2 in Tampa. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

7. Florida institutes 15-week abortion ban

After passing the state House and Senate last session, Florida’s Republican-backed 15-week abortion ban was signed into law by Gov. DeSantis in April.

Prior to the law taking effect, abortions were legal in Florida up until the third trimester, or about 24 weeks of pregnancy.

The legal validity of the law, which did not include exceptions for cases of rape or incest, was challenged in court, but quickly reinstated.

The ban was strongly opposed by advocates for reproductive rights who protested at the Capitol. Florida has traditionally been something of a haven for reproductive rights amid more restrictive Southern states, thanks to a privacy clause in its constitution.

Florida’s push to limit abortions pre-dated the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June, which was followed by full abortion bans in most southern states, but not Florida.

Republicans likely will push for greater restrictions this session.

— Lauren Peace

Akile Anai, the Uhuru Movement Director of Department of Agitation and Propaganda, addresses the media during a press conference at the Uhuru House in St. Petersburg on Aug. 4.
Akile Anai, the Uhuru Movement Director of Department of Agitation and Propaganda, addresses the media during a press conference at the Uhuru House in St. Petersburg on Aug. 4. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

6. FBI probes St. Petersburg’s Uhurus over possible election meddling

The news in late July of a Russian influence campaign that implicated members of St. Petersburg’s Uhuru Movement rocked the local political world and spurred speculation about whether foreign influence had affected past city elections.

Federal agents executed search warrants July 29 in St. Petersburg, including at the Uhuru House on 18th Avenue South. The searches were related to a federal indictment unsealed the same day against a Russian national, Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, who is accused of directing American political groups in an effort to sow division, spread pro-Russian propaganda and interfere in U.S. elections.

Although the Uhurus were not named specifically, the indictment referenced a St. Petersburg political group and described five of its members as “unindicted co-conspirators.” It alleged that Ionov helped direct the campaigns of two of the group’s members when they ran for office in 2017 and 2019.

Uhuru leaders decried the searches of their property and denied taking money from Russia. The months since have seen no new criminal charges.

— Dan Sullivan

A regular gallon of gasoline is priced at $4.79 at a Sunoco gas station at the corner of 16th Street N and Central Avenue on  June 6 in St. Petersburg. High fuel prices were among the inflationary factors that contributed to a soaring cost of living in Tampa Bay in 2022.
A regular gallon of gasoline is priced at $4.79 at a Sunoco gas station at the corner of 16th Street N and Central Avenue on June 6 in St. Petersburg. High fuel prices were among the inflationary factors that contributed to a soaring cost of living in Tampa Bay in 2022. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

5. Tampa Bay’s cost of living skyrockets

High inflation is a worldwide phenomenon due to the pandemic rebound, supply chain issues and rising gas prices from Russia’s war on Ukraine. Tampa Bay has seen some of the highest jumps in prices nationally, along with Atlanta and Phoenix, which economists link to a surge in migration to the region.

At inflation’s peak in May, prices were climbing as much every two months as they usually would during a whole year. While inflation has slowed since, it’s still up by 9.6% from last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s not just the grocery bill pinching consumers.

The region, named by Zillow as 2022′s hottest housing market, saw home prices climb 23% in a year, according to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index. The average rent shifted from cheap to expensive compared to the national average last year, and the disparities continued to grow while wages lagged.

Small businesses are also struggling with rising rents. And while Florida has long been considered a retirement destination, many retirees are starting to feel like they can no longer afford to live in the Sunshine State.

— Bernadette Berdychowski

State Attorney Andrew Warren attends a press conference on Aug. 4 at Bank of America Plaza in downtown Tampa hours after Governor Ron DeSantis suspended him due to neglect of duty.
State Attorney Andrew Warren attends a press conference on Aug. 4 at Bank of America Plaza in downtown Tampa hours after Governor Ron DeSantis suspended him due to neglect of duty. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

4. DeSantis fires Warren; Warren pushes back

Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren got what had to be the surprise of his legal career Aug. 4 when he was escorted from his offices by a sheriff’s deputy. DeSantis suspended the twice-elected prosecutor, saying Warren refused to enforce certain laws.

Warren, a progressive Democrat, contended his removal was political theater by a Republican governor preparing to run for president. He quickly sued DeSantis in federal court in Tallahassee to try to win his job back.

The three-day trial centered on pledges Warren signed against prosecuting abortion and transgender healthcare cases — none of which had come before him — and office policies on not pursuing certain misdemeanors. It also focused on a potential political motive for his ouster.

Whether Warren will be reinstated is in the hands of U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who was expected to rule in December.

— Sue Carlton

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd of supporters during his election night party at the Tampa Convention Center on Nov. 8.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to a crowd of supporters during his election night party at the Tampa Convention Center on Nov. 8. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

3. DeSantis wins commanding reelection

DeSantis’ resounding 19-point reelection margin wasn’t just a mammoth win in the state of Florida. It sent a message to Republican voters and donors nationally that he could be a serious contender for president in 2024, putting him on a potential collision course with former President Donald Trump.

Trump already has taken notice and has publicly soured on his former political protégé. Following months of simmering tension and rumors of a falling out, Trump dropped a bomb by releasing a statement calling DeSantis an “average” governor who has been disloyal by not promising he wouldn’t challenge Trump for the Republican nomination.

The statement came less than 48 hours after DeSantis’ reelection win on an otherwise worse-than-expected election night for Republicans nationwide, which some have blamed on Trump’s influence in Republican primaries.

When he’s been asked about Trump’s statements, DeSantis has so far mostly declined to engage, only directing people to “the scoreboard” from his election night win.

— Emily L. Mahoney

Supporters cheer as Fox News declares Gov. Ron DeSantis the winner against Charlie Crist during an election night party at the Tampa Convention Center Nov. 8 in Tampa.
Supporters cheer as Fox News declares Gov. Ron DeSantis the winner against Charlie Crist during an election night party at the Tampa Convention Center Nov. 8 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

2. Florida becomes a red state

For decades, Florida has had the coveted reputation as the nation’s largest swing state, where all eyes would turn each presidential election. But for a while, it’s been looking less and less swingy — and in 2022, it arguably completed its transformation into a red state.

After this election, for the first time since the late 1800s, not a single Democrat will hold a statewide office. Republicans gained supermajorities in both the state House and Senate. And DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio were reelected in major landslides that bore little resemblance to Florida’s razor-thin recount margins from four years ago.

A few of the causes: Recently, the number of Republican registered voters in the state surpassed Democrats for the first time in state history. Simultaneously, the state’s Democratic party has been in collapse, with its number of registered voters declining, candidates struggling to attract financial support and party members openly blaming their leadership.

There’s no guarantee Florida’s new status will be permanent. The state still has more than 4 million voters registered as independents, a number that’s not too far off from what either of the major parties boast. Democrats could be more competitive if they can increase their own voters’ turnout.

But for now, Florida has entered a new phase of its political life.

— Emily L. Mahoney

Building materials, furniture and personal items lay across the remains of Times Square near the Fort Myers Fishing Pier on Sep 29 after Hurricane Ian made landfall, destroying the area.
Building materials, furniture and personal items lay across the remains of Times Square near the Fort Myers Fishing Pier on Sep 29 after Hurricane Ian made landfall, destroying the area. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

1. Hurricane Ian devastates the Gulf Coast

It was one of those storms we’ll remember for years: Hurricane Ian made landfall in Southwest Florida on Sept. 28 as a menacing, high-end Category 4 storm. When the winds died, the water receded and the skies cleared, scenes of iconic Florida communities — from Fort Myers Beach to Sanibel Island — emerged forever changed.

As of mid-December, at least 144 confirmed deaths were linked to the storm, including five people in Hillsborough County. Early damage estimates suggest Hurricane Ian was the costliest natural disaster of 2022, with insured losses estimated between $50 billion and $65 billion.

The Tampa Bay area was spared the worst of the storm, despite early forecasts calling for 5 to 10 feet of storm surge in the region. With 150 mph maximum sustained winds, Hurricane Ian is tied for the fifth-strongest hurricane to make landfall in United States history.

— Amy Gehrt