ST. PETERSBURG — In Mayor Bill Foster's world, Florida's fourth-largest city is on the cusp of greatness. In challenger Rick Kriseman's world, the city is on the wrong course.
The first debate after the primary election saw the two mayoral candidates present opposite views of the city's present and future Tuesday night. Questions at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg centered on economic development and growing small businesses.
Unlike a dozen primary debates, this event offered chances to rebut answers. The two lawyers and former City Council members agreed on some points, but their clashing conclusions provided insight into their political beliefs and leadership traits.
Foster touted his record as Kriseman picked apart the past four years.
When asked how he would help expand small businesses, Foster, 50, touted the Greenhouse, a new partnership he unveiled in June with the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and three local colleges to replace the city's business assistance center. The goal is to recruit, retain and expand business opportunities.
Kriseman, 51, countered: "I'm glad he's finally done that. It took 1,648 days from the time he took office" to unveil the plan. If elected, Kriseman vowed to visit businesses to see how the city can help them.
Meanwhile, a moderator quizzed both men on how their business experience makes them the best candidate.
Foster said he worked as a lawyer for 20 years and now manages 2,700 employees and a general fund budget in excess of $200 million.
"I have been the CEO of the fourth-largest city in Florida," he said. "That is intense job training, and now is not a good time for on-the-job training. I can assure you that."
Kriseman talked about the years his father ran a small business. He then contrasted former Mayor Rick Baker's tenure with Foster's term since 2010. Baker occupied City Hall during boom years.
"It isn't necessarily about the experience," Kriseman said. "It's what you bring to the table as far as leadership goes."
Foster replied: "I'm glad his father was an entrepreneur and had the experience. He didn't answer the question and tell you his experience."
Enter the Democrat-versus-Republican battle.
The men chided each other over partisan politics in a nonpartisan race.
Kriseman, a Democrat who served six years in the Florida House, frequently says he couldn't overcome a partisan divide to pass much legislation in Tallahassee.
"It's no time to make excuses," Foster, a Republican, told the crowd of about 100 people.
He then surprised many with his answer on the importance of higher education when he mentioned Gov. Rick Scott. He boasted about spending a long weekend in Tallahassee securing $5 million for a business school at USF St. Petersburg.
"It's something the governor was going to veto," Foster said. "It helps to have a friend in the governor's mansion."
Kriseman replied: "It would have been nice during my six years in Tallahassee if Mr. Foster was up there every session to advocate" for issues that impact citizens.
In closing, Foster urged residents to consider three questions before voting. He wanted to know if they love St. Petersburg, whether they are better off now than four years ago and if the city is on the right path.
"Lets keep the momentum growing," Foster said. "This is what this campaign is all about."
Kriseman then asked: "Are you satisfied with the way things are or would you like to see it better than it is? It can be better."
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @markpuente.