Mayoral candidates Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker made their best pitch to voters in front of a live television audience on Tuesday night. The candidates essentially asked this: Is the city better off now than it was four years ago?
"This city has come a long way in four years," said Kriseman, the incumbent mayor.
Baker, who served as mayor from 2001-10, blamed his rival for stalling the progress made since he ran City Hall.
"I think we're going in a direction with a broken sewer system and a pier and huge over-spending and over-budgeting that we just can't afford," Baker said. "I will fix all that."
The hour-long debate, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9, was held in front of an invitation-only audience at the Palladium Theater and broadcast by the cable news channel. It was the most extensive discussion between the two candidates yet, held on the day that more than 64,000 mail ballots went out to city voters.
The debate covered familiar ground. Who will best spark development in Midtown? Who will do the best job fighting crime and building affordable housing? Who has the best plan to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg and to finish building the waterfront Pier?
The two men have known each other for years, ever since Kriseman served on City Council during Baker's tenure. Yet they did not chat in the minutes before the broadcast.
Once the debate began, their dislike for one another became evident. When asked if he would retain popular St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway, appointed by Kriseman in 2014, Baker responded with this:
"I like him," Baker said. "I just don't like his boss."
The most freewheeling segment of the debate, moderated by Times political editor Adam Smith and Bay News 9's Holly Gregory, came in an extended segment on the city's sewage crisis. The city released up to 200 million gallons of sewage from 2015-16, and recently agreed to a state consent order to pay $326 million to fix its sewer system.
Baker promised to reopen the shuttered waterfront Albert Whitted sewage plant, which was closed just before the crisis erupted in August 2015, saying it was the lynchpin of the sewage crisis.
Shutting the plant down was bad enough, Baker said, but then failing to quickly reopen it was "inexcusable." He cited a recent Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission draft report that blamed the Kriseman administration for balking on reopening the plant.
Kriseman blamed past staffers for giving him bad advice. But in hindsight, he said, he would have made a different decision: "Knowing what I know now? Absolutely, it was a mistake to shut down Albert Whitted."
Kriseman, though, said Baker did the bare minimum maintaining the sewer system on his watch.
"We didn't plan for the future," Kriseman said.
Baker also would not rule out rehiring ex-Public Works Administrator Mike Connors, the official cited by Kriseman for giving him bad advice on Albert Whitted. Baker also refused to say if he would rehire other top administrators from his tenure, such as former police chief and deputy mayor Goliath Davis III.
Kriseman, a Democrat, and Baker, a Republican, also clashed over partisanship. Kriseman asked Baker to explain his support for 2008 vice presidential GOP candidate Sarah Palin.
Baker didn't. Instead, he attacked Kriseman for focusing too much on national politics instead of the nuts and bolts of running Florida's fifth-largest city.
"That's what Mayor Kriseman has done with his tweeting," Baker said, apparently referring to a 2015 tweet in which Kriseman playfully banned then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump from the city. Baker has refused to say who he voted for in the 2016 presidential election.
Kriseman responded that decisions made in Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee have consequences for the Sunshine City.
"My values are against the repeal of Obamacare," Kriseman said, "so yeah I'm paying attention to what's happening in Washington."
Kriseman also attacked Baker for refusing to march in the annual St. Pete Pride parade. Baker refused to do so when he was mayor and never signed a proclamation honoring the event.
"To not fully participate in that event … sends a message to the community that you're not as important," Kriseman said, "that they don't rise to the same level as the rest of community."
Baker said he respects the LGBT community, but would not raise the Pride flag over City Hall because he doesn't want to pick and choose between groups. Kriseman has refused to raise a pro-life group's flag.
Kriseman then noted that he also raises a flag every year during Black History Month.
"I guess that means he won't raise that flag either," the mayor said.
The city's increasing lack of affordable housing and fears of gentrification also got more attention than in previous forums.
Baker criticized Kriseman for proposing to bring in outside businesses like a high-end motorcycle dealership and a proposed "Floribbean" restaurant along 22nd Street S. Baker said his administration was focused on improving the lives and fortunes of the mostly African-American area, not on displacing them.
"Our objective was not to wipe out everything in Midtown and bring new people into Midtown," Baker said. "It was to make sure we made it a better community for the people who live in Midtown right now."
Kriseman defended his policy toward the poverty-stricken area, saying that attracting outside businesses was good for Midtown as long as they hired Midtown residents.
The Aug. 29 primary will have four other candidates on the ballot: Anthony Cates III, Paul Congemi, Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter and Jesse Nevel. They were not invited to Tuesday night's debate.
So three blocks away at Williams Park, the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement held a rally of more than 100 people to protest their exclusion from the debate and to denounce a racist tirade made by Congemi during last week's mayoral candidate's forum.
If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, the mayor's race will continue to Nov. 7.
Times staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report.