ST. PETERSBURG — The city is a little more than six weeks from a mayoral primary election for which thousands of dollars will be spent and dozens of ideas will be debated, but the buzz around the local political scene isn't focused on the candidates or the issues.
It's all about a chicken.
Specifically, the person behind it (and inside it).
Three times this week, someone in a bright yellow suit with wide blue eyes and a crooked beak has come to mayoral forums with a sign that says "Kathleen Ford: Too chicken to debate Foster + Kriseman."
Now, after days of speculation, a number of clues seem to point to a man with similar such mischief in his past: local blogger and political consultant Peter Schorsch, a fierce Ford detractor.
Despite adamantly denying any connection, Schorsch has made comments (online and off) that imply he's involved; several St. Petersburg political insiders say he's responsible; and a fellow consultant says Schorsch told him last week that he intended to pull the prank.
Last Friday, local attorney and political consultant Johnny Bardine met with Schorsch at Kahwa Coffee in St. Petersburg to discuss a council race.
There, Bardine said, Schorsch told him of his plan.
"He told me he was going to do something to put some pressure on Kathleen for dodging these forums," Bardine said. "And he specifically mentioned a guy in a chicken suit."
Schorsch denied that.
"Johnny is absolutely lying and he's doing so because I'm beating up on his client," he said, referring to District 8 council candidate Steve Galvin.
Bardine insisted he was just recalling what Schorsch told him, an idea he even endorsed.
At 5:47 p.m. on Tuesday, Schorsch called the Crossroads Area Neighborhood Association, which was hosting a political event that night at St. Petersburg College Gibbs Campus, to ask for directions.
Schorsch didn't show, but, 45 minutes after that call, the chicken and its sign made their first appearance — in front of Ford.
Not long after, at a mayoral debate downtown, Schorsch told a Times columnist to expect news on Ford's absence.
About 15 minutes later, as Mayor Bill Foster was making his introduction, the chicken walked in. Former state Rep. Rick Kriseman also was at that event, but Ford had said earlier she couldn't attend because of her prior commitment to Crossroads.
The mayor fumbled a few words. People laughed. They took photos — the intruder even posed in one for Schorsch.
"I was alerted that the chicken was going to be there," Schorsch said Thursday.
He said he received an anonymous message about the surprise, but declined to share the person's email address.
The next day, Ford missed a debate hosted by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, where Schorsch is an officer.
As the moderator joked about Ford's absence, the chicken appeared via a back door before hastily leaving the same way.
"That was a genuine surprise," Schorsch said, "even to me."
But later that evening, in an online comment on tampabay.com, Schorsch posted this: "And the first phase of my 'Stop Kathleen Ford' program is a success. Not bad for a couple of blog posts and a chicken suit."
The statement seems to imply Schorsch is taking credit for the prank, but he insisted it's being misconstrued.
He said he meant that his blog posts about Ford's absences triggered coverage from the Times, which he believes inspired someone to don a chicken suit.
"I did not have anything to do with it," Schorsch said. "I think it's a wonderful idea, though."
Schorsch is no stranger to political trickery.
In the 2009 mayor's race, he was fired by candidate Jamie Bennett for giving out baseball tickets to the city's suite at Tropicana Field in a campaign folder that included an election contribution request.
Bennett denied knowing that Schorsch had done it. Schorsch said the candidate knew.
Schorsch also alleged that the two men had undertaken a variety of dirty campaign tactics to discredit opponents — including paying homeless people to heckle Ford at a news conference.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.