Mayor David Fischer was blasted with sharp, race-related barbs Wednesday night at the final high-profile forum of the mayoral campaign.
Former state House candidate Cary Burns, a supporter of mayoral challenger Bill Klein, accused Fischer of telling him privately that City Council member David Welch had tried to "out-black" council member Ernest Fillyau during a debate over a SWAT team being on call for the last Dr. Martin Luther King celebration.
"I would never make a statement like that," Fischer responded before a packed ballroom at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, six days before the citywide election.
Another questioner at the Tiger Bay/Leadership St. Petersburg forum, Pam Williams, held up a green Fischer flier that questioned Klein's racial sensitivity and was distributed to black voters.
"Were you willing to sacrifice the welfare of the entire community just to get re-elected?" asked Williams, who is married to Larry Williams, a City Council member and ardent Klein supporter.
Fischer's flier noted, among other things, that Klein had promised to cut the position of the highest ranking black city employee, chief of staff Don McRae.
The mayor was unapologetic. He said Klein's public statement about McRae _ a particularly controversial figure since McRae fired former police Chief Ernest Curtsinger _ was aimed at appealing to a certain constituency and that it was only appropriate for the Fischer campaign to counter that appeal.
Klein found himself answering for the McRae statement too, saying: "If there was ever anything that I'd like to take back, it's that statement."
He made the comment to the Times editorial board, and recounted to the Vinoy audience, "At the same time I said how I will hire a senior level African-American in my administration."
In fact, Klein told the editorial board only that he heard McRae was ineffective and that a study had shown the position to be unnecessary. He began stressing his intention to hire high-level black staffers later, after facing criticism.
The forum is the last high-profile event before Tuesday's election, and like those in the past, Klein and Fischer did not directly attack one another.
As usual, they barely even looked at each other.
Klein is a retired Army general and former vice president for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has portrayed Fischer as a weak leader who failed to deal with racial troubles before violent unrest broke out.
Asked to name one thing that makes him more qualified, Klein spoke of his 33 years in the Army, saying, "I grew up in the most integrated segment of society" and noted that his vision is for a unified city "moving forward."
Fischer, who has served one four-year term, and before that a two-year term, has pointed to a record of repeatedly lowering the tax rate, working to revitalize neighborhoods, overseeing a more active downtown, lowering the crime rate, and helping bring a baseball team to an empty stadium.
He has portrayed Klein as a stranger unfamiliar with the city.
"I've been with the city through thick and thin, through ups and downs, and I think the city has prospered over the last six years. That's what makes me qualified," Fischer said.
The most heated moments were produced by partisan questioners, and if an applause meter were gauging the debate, Klein would have been deemed the winner.
Fischer supporters tried to stress Klein's lack of community involvement, while Klein supporters attacked Fischer for failing to arrest more rioters during the civil unrest last fall and for being racially insensitive.
Burns, who ran in the state House race that Fischer's wife, Margo, wound up winning, recounted the uproar in January when council member Welch lit into police Chief Darrel Stephens for having a SWAT team on call for the King Day celebration.
In a private meeting, Burns said, Fischer recounted how the incident began with council member Leslie Curran passing a note to Fillyau, who passed it to Welch, who then lashed out at the chief.
"For some reason David decided to out-black Ernie for a change," Burns quoted Fischer as saying.
Of Fischer's steadfast denial, Burns said, "He's a liar." In a telephone interview later Wednesday, David Zachem, another Klein supporter said to have been at the private meeting, confirmed Burns' account.
"They play all kinds of dirty politics, those people behind Klein," Fillyau said Wednesday night, after hearing of the exchange.
"I don't want to dignify it. The reason I'm backing Fischer is because he wants to do some good things for the community, and in six years he's done quite a few things to help me move forward."