TAMPA — Dick Greco may have generated the biggest buzz yet in the mayor's race with just two words.
During a St. Petersburg Times-Bay News 9 televised debate Tuesday night, the former Tampa mayor likened the city's 1960s race riots to lingerie-stealing pranks once popular on college campuses.
People could have hurt one another during the riots, he said, but didn't.
"It was more like a panty raid-type thing," Greco said during the live broadcast.
Greco explained afterward that he was referring to the way both events spread across the country like "a fad." But his initial delivery wasn't well-received.
"Panty raids were something that was fun on college campuses," said veteran Tampa lawyer Delano Stewart. "This was a town that was about to be divided because of racial shootings. The comment means that he was out of touch with reality both then and now as to the conditions of this town."
Greco, 77, one of five candidates for mayor in the March 1 election, made the remark during a response about race relations in Tampa. He said his birthplace had come a long way.
"This is a friendly and loving city," he said.
Then, as he tends to do, Greco made his point by looking to the past. As mayor from 1967-1974, he said he appointed the first black employees to many departments.
When race riots broke out, Greco said he helped calm tensions. He walked the city's Central Avenue as people were shooting in the air, setting fires and breaking windows, but said he never worried about getting hurt.
"I ran out there in the middle of it and said, 'Please come see me tomorrow,' " Greco said after the debate.
Exactly what riots he was talking about is unclear.
Tuesday night, he told the Times he referring to the 1967 riots.
That June, a white Tampa police officer shot an unarmed black teenager in the back, killing him and sparking three days of disturbances. By the end, there were dozens of injuries and arrests and a half-million dollars' in damages.
Greco, however, didn't take office until that October.
In a interview Wednesday, he said he could have been recalling the racial unrest that continued into 1968.
"What difference does it make?" he asked.
News accounts from 1968 describe how the newly elected Greco patrolled trouble spots in an effort to keep the peace after the arrest of a black woman on a drunkenness charge and the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"People weren't angry at each other," he said. "They were angry at a situation that was nationwide, and they kept reacting in various cities."
That was the genesis of his "panty raid" comment, he said.
In the decades after World War II, college men began the playful practice of obtaining panties from women's dormitories.
"That started at some college in the country," Greco said. "Next thing you know, they were doing it everywhere. It was a fad-type thing."
The race riots were "a nasty, terrible fad," he said. "But the point is in Tampa I never felt or saw hatred between races."
Black members of the debate audience had varied reactions to Greco's word choice.
Tampa City Council Chairman Thomas Scott, the only black candidate in the mayor's race, said he didn't know what Greco was talking about.
"He's tired," said Yvette Lewis, who is backing candidate Bob Buckhorn, a former Tampa City Council member. "African-American people have not forgotten that Dick Greco has not been there for them."
Joe Robinson, a community activist and Greco supporter, disagreed. He said the former mayor's comment merely reflected his relaxed, laid-back air.
"You know how Greco is," Robinson said. "He's a happy person. He's not the sort of person who is going to be uptight."
Staff writer Bill Varian and researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.