Two months ago, longtime friends Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster shared a congratulatory hug and promised a congenial mayoral race.
On Monday, that vow was lost in a storm of barbs as Ford and Foster attempted to discredit each other at a St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 candidate forum.
The hourlong event covered a spectrum of topics— from baseball to BayWalk to the budget — but the candidates spent most of their allotted time steering the conversation toward their opponents' perceived weaknesses.
Foster, 46, struck the first blow, introducing himself as a foil to Ford's alleged bullying during her four years on City Council.
"The question is which one of us has the experience and the vision to move the city forward?" he said. "I refuse to lead by fear and condescension."
Ford, 52, shot back, contrasting her plan to lower taxes and help bolster small businesses with Foster's nine-year tenure on City Council, where he approved a widening budget each year.
"My opponent has failed to look out for small businesses," she said.
The event, moderated by Times political editor Adam C. Smith and Bay News 9 anchor Al Ruechel, was one of the last chances for voters to see both candidates on television before the Nov. 3 election.
In response to a question about the Tampa Bay Rays, Ford said the city cannot afford a new stadium. She also questioned the team's economic contribution to the area.
Foster, who has said he would be open to a new stadium, pounced.
"This is the demeanor of my opponent," he said, suggesting Ford is too divisive to be a successful mayor.
Ford will treat the Rays, "with this premise that it is all a scheme," he said, adding that the Rays need to be treated like a community partner.
Ford, in turn, pointed out Foster's longtime support of a securities lending investment strategy that cost the city up to $15.8 million last year.
"I bet you could think of a few things where you would like to spend that $15.8 million on," said Ford, who like Foster, is an attorney.
Foster countered that Ford also supported the investment strategy before she left the council in 2001.
He criticized her budget proposal, which calls for reducing taxes by eliminating 16 city supervisors and returning surplus tax dollars to residents.
"That's dangerous," Foster said.
The city's reserves need to be saved for a catastrophe, he said.
"You cannot wait for answers from Washington or Tallahassee," he said, vowing to support Ford's plan only if she could promise there would never be another 9/11 or hurricane.
Foster insisted he would not support status quo government but mostly praised the city's ongoing policies. In contrast, he painted Ford as the Chicken Little character from children's stories, convinced the sky is about to fall.
"I am a uniter, not a divider," he said, adding that he doesn't throw pencils or roll his eyes at his ideological opponents, actions Ford has been accused of.
He claimed Ford was intolerant of others' religious beliefs by mocking his assertions that the world was literally created in six days and that humans walked the Earth at the same time as dinosaurs.
He pointed to a candy basket Ford — who made numerous references to her commitment to science and technology — offered to voters before the forum. It was decorated with small plastic toy dinosaurs.
When asked about her demeanor, Ford insisted she could collaborate with others.
"My style has been evolving, unlike my opponent, who doesn't believe in evolution," she said.
Ford mostly maintained a jovial attitude throughout the forum, offering the sort of jokes and self-depreciation usually voiced by her opponent.
Asked to name the biggest misconception regarding her candidacy, she deadpanned, "That I am gorgeous."
Ford attempted to cast doubts on Foster's temperament, as well.
She referenced an incident where Foster allegedly put a Krispy Kreme calendar featuring obese women on another council member's desk.
In recent interviews, at least two former council members confirmed that Foster showed the calendar to colleagues.
Foster, however, disputed Ford's account.
"That is absolutely not true," he said, interrupting her. "That is what we call a Ford fact."
In an interview with the Times before the forum, Foster said he had the calendar at one point but did not pass it around.
But because of the calendar, council members had to attend one-on-one lectures on appropriate workplace behavior, according to city attorney John Wolfe.
On Mayor Rick Baker's plan to give the sidewalk in front of BayWalk to its owners, Foster said he would prefer a more temporary solution. He suggested the city cede the sidewalk for a one-year period. City officials have said that would be legally indefensible. Foster also suggested closing Second Avenue N on weekends to create a pedestrian mall.
"It is a balance between First Amendment rights and the people's interests," he said.
Ford said the vacation would set an "awful precedent" that would prompt other business owners to demand public land. She blamed BayWalk's troubles on inefficient law enforcement.
"This is a problem where public safety failed," she said. "The mayor did not jump on the problem soon enough."
Cristina Silva can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846.