The stark differences in substance and style among Tampa's candidates for mayor finally came out Tuesday night in a live, televised debate that included several direct exchanges, little new ground and too many vague answers. Former City Council member Bob Buckhorn seized control early on with short answers that captured his vision, experience and enthusiasm. Dick Greco, the four-time mayor running for another term, alternated between charming and defensive, engaged and apparently bored. Council Chairman Tom Scott used the opportunity to put the needs of his inner-city district before a prime-time viewing audience and demonstrated a passion for public service. Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik tried to show that he is as practical and viable as he is idealistic. Former Commissioner Rose Ferlita struggled to say much of anything specific.
The debate, sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9, provided the sharpest contrast yet for how the five candidates view the job, the city's challenges and the role Tampa must play across the region. The entire field acknowledged the city faces a tough fiscal picture, though few offered any real specifics beyond keeping every budget option on the table. The strategy coming in must have been to avoid saying anything that could harm a candidate's chance of advancing to a runoff.
Buckhorn and Turanchik were the strongest on details. Greco disarmed several tough criticisms of his ethics and management style, but he still failed to paint himself as a political bridge between the past and the future. Scott showed little of the charisma that has made him such a widely respected pastor and political leader. Turanchik showed a serious side that went some way to answer whether he could actually deliver on his grand plans. Ferlita offered little vision and fewer specifics. She cited as the best example of her leadership an antibullying campaign — commendable, sure, but not the main concern around most family tables.
There were some light moments. Asked to distinguish their character from the others, Ferlita pointed to her gender — and Greco agreed with her. Few took the bait on naming the best Tampa mayor, and all offered a predictable one-word response on whether Tampa or St. Petersburg would be the best home for the Tampa Bay Rays. Tampa, of course, in a Tampa city election.
As Greco continued to look backward, he made a particularly inappropriate remark as he characterized the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and downplayed the tension when he was mayor then. "It was more like a panty-raid type thing," he said of the confrontations. Yet no other candidate called him on that gaffe.
If Greco lacked energy on occasion, Buckhorn offered a more vibrant, upbeat tone. Turanchik also had a good night, even as others tried to portray him as an idealist.
For the most part, the event was civil. But the candidates showed that their personality differences are as big as their policy ones. And they likely will get sharper in the runup to election day March 1.