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Debate brings new edge to Tampa mayor's race

Bob Buckhorn, Rose Ferlita, Dick Greco, Thomas Scott and Ed Turanchik discuss issues during the debate at Blake High School.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Bob Buckhorn, Rose Ferlita, Dick Greco, Thomas Scott and Ed Turanchik discuss issues during the debate at Blake High School.

TAMPA

Rose attacked Ed. Bob attacked Dick. Dick attacked Tom. Ed attacked Rose.

What had been a polite campaign took on a sharper edge Tuesday night as Tampa's five candidates for mayor criticized each other on everything from mass transit to urban development to ethics.

Two candidates said former Mayor Dick Greco went too easy on his housing boss, Steve LaBrake, who was sentenced to five years in prison in 2005 on charges of conspiracy, fraud and bribery.

"I would have fired Steve LaBrake way earlier," former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik said during a St. Petersburg Times-Bay News 9 debate televised live from Blake High School.

"The warning signs were there," he said. "There was unethical conduct. There was misconduct. In any corporate world that would not have been tolerated."

Though internal audits identified problems in the city's housing department as early as 1996, the scandal broke in 2001.

Months into the scandal, Greco placed LaBrake on a 90-day paid administrative leave from his $105,000-a-year job during a criminal investigation.

Greco said he handled the allegations appropriately, cooperated with investigators and allowed justice to take its course.

"He went to jail," Greco said.

If no candidate wins a majority in the March 1 election, the two with the most votes will head to a runoff on March 22.

That made Greco, the generally acknowledged front-runner, an inviting target for rivals trying to reach the runoff.

When candidates got a chance to ask any opponent a question, former Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita, former Tampa City Council member Bob Buckhorn and Tampa City Council Chairman Tom Scott all went after Greco.

Was Greco's campaign for a fifth term as mayor at odds with the spirit of term limits? Ferlita asked. Greco said no.

Had he excluded the urban core from his past development efforts? Scott asked.

Greco rattled off housing and business projects he said he oversaw. "What was excluded?" Greco countered. "What are you talking about?"

Buckhorn pointed out that Greco, while in his 30s, said the city had passed by incumbent Mayor Nick Nuccio, who was in his late 60s, and it was time for a change. "If it was good back then, isn't it time to turn a generational page now?" Buckhorn asked.

"It wasn't a matter of how old he was," said Greco, now 77. "It was what he was doing. He could have been 300 if he was doing the right thing."

At another point, Greco sent a ripple through the crowd when he compared Tampa's race riots in 1967 with a panty raid.

Greco was saying that, when he was mayor during the 1960s and 1970s, he broke racial barriers and appointed the first black employees in many departments.

"We've come a long, long way," Greco said. "This is a friendly and loving city." Even during the riots, he said, those involved didn't necessarily try to hurt others.

"It was more like a panty raid-type thing," he said.

Carolyn Collins, 65, president of the NAACP Hillsborough County chapter, said she was taken aback by the remark.

"A kid got killed in that riot," said Collins, who attended the event. "That was not no panty raid."

The unrest erupted after Martin Chambers, a 19-year-old African-American man, was suspected of robbing a camera store and was running from police when he was shot in the back in a predominantly black neighborhood. The next three days, rioters burned and looted the Central Avenue area, once considered Tampa's black social hub.

After the debate, Greco said it was "a scary, horrible time," but there wasn't hate among city residents. "No one wanted to hurt each other," he said.

Reactions among the other candidates varied.

"I didn't know what he was talking about," Scott said.

"I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was trying to be funny," Buckhorn said. "Obviously, racial disturbances are not funny. They signify an underlying deterioration of the fabric of our community."

Turning to Turanchik, Ferlita said plans to redevelop Tampa's inner city through the Civitas project he had proposed failed because they were unrealistic.

"There's a difference between Disney World and running a city," Ferlita said, noting she wasn't the only official in opposition. "So obviously, it wasn't a very good vision."

Turanchik later took a shot at Ferlita, questioning why she left a County Commission meeting during a key discussion on plans for mass transit.

"Why were you missing in action?" he asked.

"Probably I had a conflict," Ferlita said. "I'd be happy to check my schedule."

She said she supported the transit initiative, which county voters rejected in November, but had concerns about details and the lack of transparency.

"You can be a cheerleader and sit right there," she told Turanchik, noting she was one of five commissioners to vote in favor of holding the transit referendum. "I was there when you were not there. I was a leader in doing that."

On a few other topics, there was more general agreement.

All five candidates agreed that the Tampa Bay Rays would be better suited in Tampa than in their current home in St. Petersburg, though support was scarce for offering public money to build a new stadium.

Still, the debate featured the most pointed give-and-take in the campaign so far, Turanchik said.

"But I expect a lot more is coming."

Times staff writer Bill Varian and researcher Natalie A. Watson contributed to this report.

Debate brings new edge to Tampa mayor's race 02/09/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 9, 2011 12:01am]
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