ST. PETERSBURG — In the opening minutes of the city's first mayoral debate Thursday night, candidates Kathleen Ford and Rick Kriseman wasted no time attacking Mayor Bill Foster.
And when residents got their chance to ask questions, several of them — including former deputy mayor Goliath Davis — laid into Foster, too.
The exchanges — two months to the day before the primary election on Aug. 27 — provide a glimpse of what Foster faces in trying to keep his job: potentially feisty voters and two politically tested challengers willing to throw some jabs.
Largely missing from the debate: the future of the Lens, a controversy that has divided the city over the last several months.
Instead, residents and the candidates focused on issues of public safety and economic development, particularly in the African-American community.
About 150 people attended the forum at Suncoast Hospice on First Avenue S. The event was sponsored by The Weekly Challenger, the local NAACP chapter and a firm owned by council chairman Karl Nurse.
Ford on several occasions ripped Foster for loosening the police department's pursuit policy shortly after he took office and also noted several recent cases in which officers jumped in front of moving cars and shot at suspects.
"We need to get rid of that policy," Ford said of the pursuit policy. "The chase policy has caused injuries of innocent people."
Kriseman vowed to tighten the policy if he is elected.
"Being mayor is about listening, learning and leading," he said.
Foster sat with his head cocked and a smile on his face. With the microphone in his hand, he touted a reduction in the homeless population.
"You know what, we did pretty good," Foster said about taking office in a recession. "We're not perfect. We hit a few singles. We struck out a few times."
Throughout the two-hour forum, Foster, Ford and Kriseman — all lawyers and former City Council members — agreed about the importance of education, jobs and making neighborhoods better.
Attorney Michelle Ligon moderated the forum, asking several questions about the candidates' visions for the future and what they would do in their first 100 days in office.
Kriseman discussed forming a task force to create a new Pier in case voters reject the Lens in the referendum on the primary ballot. Ford said she would evaluate city staff and make sure top administrators shared her ideas. Foster promised to work like he has done since January 2010.
Tensions grew when residents asked questions. For the most part, it was an attack on Foster.
Ray Tampa, a Ford supporter and former president of the NAACP, questioned Foster about projects he has initiated and completed in the African-American community.
Then Davis, who was fired by Foster in 2011, asked the mayor about a list he is circulating detailing 25 accomplishments in Midtown and neighborhoods south of Central Avenue.
Davis told the mayor that many of the projects started under former Mayor Rick Baker. Davis urged Foster to tell the truth.
"Is it true you did all of this, or were you in the seat when it came to fruition?" Davis asked.
Foster replied: "Yeah, there's a lot of things I do in the chair that you know nothing about."
Minutes later, community activist Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter asked Kriseman and Ford to explain what they have done for minorities. She is one of Foster's biggest advocates in the African-American community.
"What bills did you pass?" she asked Kriseman about his years in the Florida House. "I never saw you move anything forward."
After Lassiter spoke for more than two minutes, Ligon asked her to stop. Lassiter pointed her finger and sniped as she walked away.
The Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, took over.
"This is a forum," Sykes said. "This is not a candidate bashing. Whether you like them or not, be respectful."
Mark Puente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.