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Candidates get a shot at opponents

A predictable affair before about 150 members of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club sprang to life for a few minutes Tuesday when St. Petersburg City Council candidates were invited to ask their opponents a question.

They were allowed to ask the questions although the opponents did not have to answer them.

John "Jay" Lasita, candidate for the District 8 seat, wasted no time posing the first question to his opponent, Jimmy Joe Biggerstaff: "Jimmy, why are you pursuing the tired old politics of distortion and attack?"

"Simple," replied Biggerstaff, who then posed his question to Lasita: "I would ask him why he has two out of every three people who have given money to his campaign, come from outside St. Pete?"

Lasita had earlier parried with Biggerstaff over his contributions. When Biggerstaff questioned them, Lasita pointed out that he had received more than 60. Biggerstaff had received just two, including a loan from himself.

Then incumbent David Welch asked his District 6 opponent Frank Peterman Jr.: "Frank, you're always talking about change. I would like to know specifically what changes you have in mind other than simply trying to unseat me?"

The inquiry brought the house down.

For his part, Peterman responded with a dry question chastising Welch for not bringing residents and Gov. Lawton Chiles together after last fall's disturbances.

Then the microphone moved to possibly the most bitter council race this year, the District 4 contest between Kathleen Ford and Pat Fulton.

Fulton went for it: "How much time in the past year, either in terms of hours or days, have you spent in the inner city," particularly in the areas most in need of economic revitalization?

But Ford brushed past the potentially powerful question with one for Fulton that left the crowd "ooohing" and "ahhhing" afterward.

"My question for Pat is this," Ford began, "considering the racially divisive nature of the 1993 mayoral campaign, why did you support (Police) Chief (Ernest "Curt") Curtsinger?

Fulton, who has built a good portion of her campaign on the open dialogue and racial harmony she would bring to the council, had indeed pledged her support to Curtsinger in the heated 1993 mayoral campaign.

She had finished out of the running for mayor in the primary that year before throwing her support to Curtsinger, whose candidacy had helped polarize a number of issues along racial lines.

District 2 incumbent Beatrice Griswold drew more laughter with her question to challenger Ronnie Beck: "I would ask my opponent how he is going to be as accessible as he feels council ought to be more of without a listed telephone number?"

Beck used his moment to try to clarify a point made earlier: "I never proposed raising taxes, I only proposed not lowering them anymore."

Mayor David Fischer has dropped the city's property tax rate slightly each year of his four-year term, contending that it was the highest in the area and should come down. The net effect for most homeowners has been fairly modest.

But lower rates meant possible cuts in programs, the reason he would favor a halt to the tax cuts.

He asked Griswold: "For all the things that people want to do, where are you going to find the money to do them?"