ST. PETERSBURG — With 10 mayoral forums under their belts, the top candidates have honed the talking points so well that residents hear the same message at every debate.
Not much new emerged in Thursday night's televised event at City Hall. The leading candidates — Mayor Bill Foster, Kathleen Ford and Rick Kriseman — stuck to their talking points.
But fringe candidates Paul Congemi and Anthony Cates, who have not been invited to the major debates, offered something different. Congemi, 56, raised a Bible and read quotes from Leviticus. Anthony Cates, 23, left the debate after half an hour to attend a radio interview.
Talks centered around the future of the Pier and professional baseball, Midtown redevelopment and crime at the event hosted by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
For many, these debates mean nothing; they've already voted by absentee ballot in the Aug. 27 primary. As of Thursday, voters had returned 21,005 — or 33 percent — of the 63,000 absentee ballots sent by the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office. In the 2009 primary, residents cast 36,733 votes overall.
Here are some highlights from the debate Thursday:
First mention of the Pier: Within about 10 minutes, Ford said she would have allowed residents to vote on whether they wanted to refurbish the inverted pyramid.
On police: Kriseman, 51, and Ford, 56, criticized the police department for its lack of community policing. Both prefer a method where an officer is assigned to every neighborhood, a strategy police Chief Chuck Harmon scrapped in 2006.
Foster, 50, said, "Community policing is alive and well."
About education: Even though the mayor has little control over the city's schools, this continues to dominate talk on the campaign trail.
Ford is passionate about boosting early childhood learning to prepare kids for kindergarten. Foster talked about the difficulty working with three superintendents since 2010. Kriseman didn't differ from his stump speeches, discussing the importance of service learning.
Best one-liner: "Don't do it," Kriseman jokingly said when asked to give advice to aspiring politicians in attendance.
Most repeated line: "I represent God, morality and the common man. I don't represent greed, big business, dollars and cents," Congemi said several times.
Best take on an old debate (how to improve Rays' attendance): "No. 1, stop the greed," Congemi said. "Five bucks for a hot dog, five bucks for a soda. How does the common man take his family to the game? Get rid of the greed. You'll fill the seats."
Political jabs: "I don't come around every four years or come down from Tallahassee with failed policies," Foster said about Ford and Kriseman.
Kriseman replied: "I'm running for mayor because I don't want to keep the status quo or because I want to turn City Hall upside down."
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @markpuente.