ST. PETERSBURG — The chicken walked in while Mayor Bill Foster was in the middle of introducing himself.
"Somebody . . . in a chicken suit just came in," the mayor said, briefly losing his train of thought.
He — it appeared to be a rooster — made no introduction. Rather, he held a large yellow sign that read: "Kathleen Ford: Too chicken to debate Foster + Kriseman."
No one saved a chair for candidate Kathleen Ford at Tuesday night's mayoral forum, but then again, no one had to. For the second time this week, Ford, who is considered a serious contender in the city's mayoral race, skipped an invitation to debate her two opponents, the incumbent Foster and former state Rep. Rick Kriseman. She also will not attend the debate today at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.
But as is often the case when a candidate become a no-shows, her absence loomed large at the St. Petersburg LGBT Mayoral Debate, which was held at the Metro Wellness on Third Avenue N.
The moderator asked Foster and Kriseman to comment on Ford's absence.
"I can't speak ill of anyone, however," Foster said, "I think communication with the public that you want to serve and openness and transparency is of utmost importance. . . . So if this is a candidate's idea of openness and transparency, then I have a problem with that."
"We both have full-time jobs. We're here," Kriseman said. "So I think it's disappointing."
Even if voters went to Ford's campaign website, they would learn virtually nothing about her vision for the city, he said, as she has posted none of her views.
David Schauer, who has helped organize past St. Petersburg gay pride parades and put together the debate on Tuesday, said he had tried to accommodate Ford's schedule. Told she had an event at 6:30 p.m., he moved the forum to 7 p.m. Ford told him she'd try to make it, he said, adding that the chicken was not his idea.
Ford told the Tampa Bay Times that she had already committed to an event Tuesday night at the Crossroads Neighborhood Association.
The mayoral debate was only the second held by LGBT groups, and most of the questions revolved around the city's development, policing methods and what ought to be done about the crumbling Pier.
Members of the audience also asked what the candidates would do to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg and why Jabil Circuit deserved a tax break for relocating its headquarters to the city's downtown without creating new jobs.
Throughout the debate, Krisemen tried to paint Foster as a downtown mayor focused only on the city's core to the exclusion of its neighborhoods.
"The investments in the city have not been equal," he said, accusing Foster of largely ignoring Midtown. The mayor countered that he is setting up a community redevelopment area that could spur redevelopment in low-income neighborhoods.
But before he could begin his introduction, Foster was asked whether he planned to take part in next year's pride parade.
His predecessor, Rick Baker, scorned the city's largest event, and Foster, who is a conservative Christian, has never been in the parade. Kriseman was one of its grand marshals last year and has been involved in the parade since its early days.
"Will I attend next year's parade? I will attend next year's parade. Will I be in it? No," Foster said.