ST. PETERSBURG — As the clock races toward the Aug. 27 mayoral election, two of the top three candidates exchanged frequent barbs during an open-microphone debate Wednesday night in the Midtown area.
In a shift from earlier debates, Mayor Bill Foster and Rick Kriseman went toe-to-toe criticizing each other's record, paying scant attention to candidate Kathleen Ford in her third mayoral race.
Kriseman poked Foster several times for not traveling to Washington, D.C., or Tallahassee in search of money for programs to help the city.
"Every time I read the paper, I feel like I'm reading where (Tampa) Mayor Bob Buckhorn is traveling to bring jobs back to the city," Kriseman said.
Replied Foster: "One of the things I learned about Mr. Kriseman tonight is that he likes to travel."
The 90-minute forum at Bethel Community Baptist Church on 54th Avenue S allowed voters in the predominantly African-American community to quiz candidates on vital issues impacting the city's poorest area.
Discussions on education, jobs, poverty and the police department's controversial pursuit policy dominated the evening.
Former NAACP president Ray Tampa stumped the candidates when he asked whether they would eradicate organizations that tout programs to help the poor but don't produce results. He called the groups "poverty pimps."
The three candidates, all former City Council members and lawyers, pledged to end the practice.
When residents asked about the chase policy Foster loosened in 2010, Ford, 56, and Kriseman, 51, said they would tighten the practice.
The expansion has led to more high-speed pursuits, some that have resulted in crashes. Black leaders have demanded that Foster tighten the rules.
Foster, 50, explained that the policy mirrors other area police agencies.
"It completely follows and tracks state laws," he said. "You always have the risk factor. It simply gives the officers the ability to pursue."
Then silence developed as Goliath Davis took the microphone.
The former police chief and deputy mayor reminded Foster that he supported the mayor in the 2009 race and said Chuck Harmon, the current chief, opposed the looser pursuit policy.
Davis told Foster that he could promulgate a policy that is stricter than state law.
"I talked to you until I was blue in the face," Davis said. "Unfortunately, you bowed to the (police) unions."
Near the end of the debate, activist Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter — one of Foster's biggest supporters in the black community — demanded answers on what the candidates have already done to help Midtown.
Foster touted new businesses and creating a Community Redevelopment Area to help funnel tax dollars to the neighborhood. Kriseman said he helped expand voting rights during his six years in the Florida House.
Ford mentioned her culinary skills, saying she helped make potato salad at Campbell Park in the late 1990s.
"Wasn't that fun, Momma Tee?" Ford asked, adding that she also worked to better neighborhoods.
"Potato salad," several residents blurted out.
The moderator then urged silence so Ford could answer the question.
In closing, the Rev. Manuel Sykes, head of the church, told voters to demand more than lip service from candidates, saying, "No matter what you hear or what you say, it will go unnoticed if you don't vote."
Contact Mark Puente at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @markpuente.