CLEARWATER — Perhaps the strangest moment of an already unusual city election season came midway through Thursday's mayoral candidate forum, when Christine Marketos-Cuomo accused supporters of her opponent, Vice Mayor George Cretekos, of stealing her campaign signs.
Marketos-Cuomo had just criticized the city's sign code, quoting a businessman who said the city's overbearing rules helped keep downtown a "cemetery." Cretekos responded that he and the City Council had worked to streamline the sign code, earning support from small businesses, and jabbed, "The gentleman you just referred to has one of my yard signs in his yard."
A moment later, Marketos-Cuomo replied.
"It's a little bit of a slap in the face that people can't put their signs on their businesses to make them flourish," she said, "and yet Mr. Cretekos has flourished the whole city of Clearwater with his signs, and they have stolen — out of my 10 — they stole five of them. So I only have five signs out there."
"Well, excuse me, but I've got to respond to that," Cretekos said. "I haven't stolen any of her signs."
Marketos-Cuomo responded, "I didn't say that."
The city-sponsored candidate forum Thursday proved the season's largest and most heated, as both candidates push to win over voters in the last days before the Jan. 31 election.
Held before a capacity crowd at City Hall and televised, this last of the forums came just before the first day of early voting, which runs today through Jan. 28.
But many people already have voted by mail. More than 6,500 ballots have been mailed in, election records show, beating the total mail turnout in 2010. In that election, nearly three-fourths of the 8,000 ballots cast came with a stamp.
The tension between candidates began even before the forum, when city officials were forced to scramble to find a new moderator. On Tuesday, Marketos-Cuomo's campaign manager, Kostas Ktistakis, accused scheduled moderator and St. Petersburg College-Clearwater provost Stan Vittetoe of being Cretekos' "personal friend."
Marti Folwell, an officer of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of North Pinellas County, agreed to step in on short notice. She took questions from the audience, allowing candidates two minutes to answer. City Council members-elect Doreen DiPolito and Jay Polglaze, who ran unopposed, had three minutes each to introduce themselves but did not participate in the debate.
Marketos-Cuomo, 63, a retired federal government worker who is a newcomer to city government affairs, used her forum time to promote herself as a "fresh voice" and "people person" attuned to residents' concerns. Short on specifics, she answered policy questions by saying she would rely on "the people's voice."
She said the city should host job fairs in partnership with Dress for Success, a nonprofit that offers women clothes for job interviews. She spoke against extending term limits for council members and demolishing the downtown Harborview Center.
"If you were to tear all the historic buildings down," she said, "there would be no history."
Cretekos, 64, a former longtime aide to U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, joined the City Council in 2007 and is making his first run for mayor. He offered rebuttals to many of Marketos-Cuomo's points. He corrected her when she said lights at the beach tennis courts were turned off — they weren't — and he mentioned that groups like WorkNet Pinellas already conduct job fairs in the community.
Cretekos noted that every large local endorsement organization — the firefighters union, police union, city employees union, the Pinellas Realtor Organization and the regional Chamber of Commerce — have chosen him.
"It's a very humbling experience to stand here and say I can do a better job than the other candidate. But I've got to be honest with myself," Cretekos said. "The work I have done as your City Council member shows not only that I, too, am a people person, but that I listen, and I work."
As for Marketos-Cuomo's signs? Most remained missing, though two were removed by city staff who said they were planted without permission outside City Hall.
After the forum, officials returned them to her campaign.
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.