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St. Petersburg mayoral debate: winners, losers, yawners, also-rans

Here is a totally biased take on the St. Petersburg mayoral candidate forum held Wednesday by the Suncoast Tiger Bay club.

Thumbs up: James Bennett, Kathleen Ford.

Bennett, a sitting City Council member, is rehabilitating himself from his scandal involving the use of city-controlled baseball tickets as a campaign goodie.

He came across Wednesday as equally or more knowledgeable on specific issues than other council veterans. More compassionate and nuanced, too; a guy who knows how to work the process.

So my debate winner, graded on a curve, is the Grownup Bennett. The other version that can still pop up at any time is Dagwood Bumstead Bennett, unable to rein in either the city bureaucracy or his own campaign, helplessly flummoxed by things blowing up around him: the ticket scandal, secret City Council agendas, surprise baseball stadium deals.

As for Ford, a former council member, she shows not a trace of the Wicked-Witch, Loose-Cannon Kathleen that her critics portray. Her criticisms of City Hall and city spending sounded precise, level-headed and credible.

Ford was the most specific: She would cut property taxes a half-mill, yet increase police and fire budgets by $500,000 each by reorganizing the bureaucracy and tapping too-generous city cash reserves.

Thumbs down: Bill Foster, Scott Wagman.

Nothing personal, I like both guys, honest, just offering some style advice. Has Foster, also a former council member, got a case of front-runner-itis? His opening and closing statements and most answers were platitudes.

"We are in control of our own destiny." "The customer is you." "Quality is Job One." I think somebody told Foster that he is going to win and it has messed him up.

As for Wagman — did you know that he was in business? Scott Paints, I hear. Business, business, business! He is more businesslike than any other candidate. And he is just busting to tell you all about it, using your first name in fine Dale Carnegie fashion.

Sideways thumbs: Deveron Gibbons, Larry Williams.

Gibbons, freshly endorsed by Gov. Charlie Crist this week (is that a good thing?) is running for senior class president on a platform of, "I'm a nice guy, and here's a list of people who are for me." Like Foster, he spoke generally, promising to unveil a "Gibbons plan" for the city. Me, I am thinking: plan first, run second.

Williams, one more former council member, sometimes seems the most independent-minded and sober of the bunch, and the least desperate to cater to the audience. But his style is about as compelling as a dead man's. It matters at least a little.

Give the hook to: Paul Congemi, Alex Haak, Richard Eldridge, and the absent Ed Helm.

Congemi raved about secrets on "police corruption" that could get him killed. Haak is a long-ago mayor of some New Jersey burg who fumbles and fulminates. Eldridge is self-effacing, funny and genuine, an erstwhile Marine sergeant who quotes Victor Hugo on his Web site, but he's in over his head.

A friendly note to: the Tiger Bay Club. Congratulations on the event. But next time try brutally quick openings and closings, more time for good questions — that's your bread and butter, ain't it?

Totally biased. Complaint line forms to the right.

St. Petersburg mayoral debate: winners, losers, yawners, also-rans 06/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 18, 2009 5:17pm]

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