ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman squared off during a lunchtime mayoral forum Wednesday, like they have so many times before.
But unlike so many debates, Foster sounded like an incumbent mayor who is confident — and proud — of his record, not a candidate in a tough fight to keep his job. Foster spent 10 minutes discussing initiatives he helped spearhead since taking office, such as on panhandling, homelessness and the growing arts districts.
He used words like perseverance and resilience to describe city employees and taxpayers, and painted a rosy picture of how the city would look if voters give him a second term.
"I am your mayor," he said. "If you vote for me, you need to hold on. The brakes on the economy are coming off."
In response, Kriseman spent about five minutes discussing his "Plan for a Better St. Petersburg" and how it will deliver better services. He vowed to focus on creating jobs, improving schools and growing the downtown medical corridor.
"St. Petersburg is a great city, but we can even be better," Kriseman said.
The political club Suncoast Tiger Bay hosted the debate, which was held at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. After candidate introductions, attendees were allowed to ask questions.
Among the first topics: police Chief Chuck Harmon's replacement. Foster said he will conduct a national search to replace Harmon, who retires Jan. 6. The same questioner asked Kriseman about radio rumors that he would hire former police Chief Goliath Davis for the job.
"No, I'm not going to hire Go Davis," Kriseman said, adding that he would have hired an outside firm to conduct the search rather than do it with existing city staff as Foster is doing.
St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton asked Foster why six of the eight council members support his opponent. Newton was the most recent addition, endorsing Kriseman on Monday.
"There are some on this City Council that have had an insatiable appetite to spend your money," Foster said. "If you want people to write checks you're going to have to cash, you can vote for my opponent."
Another person asked Kriseman for specific examples on the types of small businesses he would promote. He said the city should do more to help small businesses, but didn't directly answer the question.
Other questions centered on education policies in Tallahassee, mayoral relationships with Florida governors and a controversy Foster sparked in 2008 when he wrote a letter, as a private citizen, to the Pinellas School Board about evolution and creationism.
"I'm not advocating that a teacher in the public schools try to teach the biblical theory of creation," Foster said. "If the child has a question, let the child ask the question and guide them somewhere they can get an answer."
Council member Bill Dudley said the forum pushed him into Foster's camp.
Dudley has remained silent about endorsing a candidate in the race. Now, he said he is "sick" of the partisan politics dominating the nonpartisan mayor's race.