NEW PORT RICHEY — John Tracy wanted to distinguish himself from his rivals in the race for Pasco County School Board District 4.
So Tracy told the audience at Thursday's candidate debate at Pasco-Hernando Community College that he was the candidate of family values and integrity. Not just one of them. The one.
"People want a candidate who will do what they say and say what they mean … not someone who will flip-flop on positions," said Tracy, a music pastor at Hillside Baptist Church in Carrollwood who never mentioned that he's a pastor. "I will be for families."
His opponents — all parents with active civic involvement — were not amused.
Steve Kanakis handed a piece of paper to fellow aspirant Alison Crumbley, who sat beside him at the candidate table.
"I wrote a note to Alison saying he was very mean," Kanakis, a child psychologist who serves on the Pasco-Hernando Early Learning Coalition, said later.
Crumbley, who rolled her eyes as Tracy spoke, whispered back.
"I said, 'Good thing to know we're all scum, Steve,' " recalled Crumbley, co-founder of the Cinderella Project, which provides free prom dresses to cash-strapped teens. "I'll be honest with you. I was offended by that remark because it's not true."
Candidate Karen King, former chairwoman of the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce education committee, acknowledged that she, too, took some offense at Tracy's comments.
Each of Tracy's opponents suggested that their rival went too far by going beyond touting himself to impugning them.
"It's one thing to refer to a resume of things you have done," Crumbley said. "But when you imply that someone's value system or integrity isn't there, then you're insulting a person."
Kanakis found it funny that the candidate who has put himself up as family values man was the one attacking everyone else.
"I don't know why I didn't challenge him," he said. "I know that every one of the people on that panel has family values. Otherwise they wouldn't be sitting there."
King said she contemplated calling Tracy out. But candidates get only a short amount of time to speak at these events, she observed, and "what we really need to be talking about is the students and the issues to help the students."
Asked Friday why he said what he said, Tracy responded by e-mail that "I can't necessarily speak for the personal values of my opponents but I can point out that I am the candidate who has a proven tract [sic] record of working hard for families."
Tracy, 31, has two young sons. He has degrees from Bob Jones University, which touts its programs as "rooted in biblical truth," and he formed Pasco County's Faith and Family Values Republican Club.
As for his opponents' complaints, Tracy had little concern.
"I was there to debate, not just answer questions," he said. "It is one thing to say that you are a proponent of family values. It is another thing to have a life history of demonstrating that fact. Anybody can say it. What have you done about it? I'm not running for some of the reasons that I hear my opponents talk about. I'm running because I am committed to working with families, representing their values, and helping them during these difficult times."
Candidate Billie Kaleel did not respond to requests for comment. The School Board election is Aug. 24. If one candidate does not receive more than 50 percent of ballots cast for the nonpartisan position, the top two vote-getters head to the Nov. 2 general election.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.