Republican County Commission candidate Chris Hart set the tone for his Wednesday debate with Democrat Joe Chillura at the start by walking over and planting his foot on the table next to his opponent. "I don't wear silk stockings," Hart said, pointing to his socks. "I don't even own any silk stockings."
Most of the audience atthe Downtown Kiwanis Club didn't really understand Hart's theatrics, which referred to a remark that Chillura made calling Hart the "silk-stocking candidate."
But by the end of the debate, spectators got the message.
Both men came out swinging in what would turn out to be the most acrimonious confrontation of their campaign.
Hart attacked Chillura as a "political insider" who had used public positions for private gain. Chillura criticized Hart for distorting the facts and airing radio ads that "bordered on libel."
Although the two candidates for the District 7 at-large seat touched on topics from impact fees to law and order, much of their time was spent on the issue of character.
Hart tried to lump his opponent with "insider politicians who have their own agendas," saying Chillura, an architect, profited from the 12 years he spent as a member of the appointed Planning Commission. Chillura, 51, resigned his seat to campaign.
"His business is based on growth. Where else did he spend his time except on things that benefited his business?" Hart said. "Did he give up his time for charity or good will? No, it was for personal profit and gain."
Chillura said it was ridiculous for Hart to continue raising charges that he somehow misused his position. He has explained before that his architectural firm goes through a competitive selection process to win contracts, but Wednesday he brought a copy of the state law on contract proposals to bolster his case.
"The total fees we received in the last 12 years (from county contracts) amounts to about 12 percent of our total revenue, not 60 percent as has been erroneously reported in Mr. Hart's ads," Chillura said.
When it was Chillura's turn to question Hart, who also serves on the Planning Commission, he asked why the 46-year-old banker had floated "trial balloons" about running for Tampa mayor, Tampa City Council and County Commission after less than a year of service.
"Was it your intent to serve the city of Tampa as its appointee for four years or use the Planning Commission as a springboard for political office?" Chillura asked.
Hart said he didn't start off with the intent of running, but was convinced by people in the community who thought his knowledge was needed in elected office. He said his campaign was "grass-roots"-oriented as opposed to the "big money and big consultants" used in Chillura's campaign.
The tone of the debate generated murmurs of surprise from the Kiwanians, whose luncheon meeting otherwise consisted of announcements and a rousing chorus of She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain.
Hart said he supported the use of more bonding to pay for infrastructure _ a process in which a government borrows money and pays it back over many years with property taxes.
Chillura said he supports the use of impact fees to make new growth pay for itself, including the strains it places on law enforcement.