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Debate turns feisty

Candidate Rick Baker springs "hard words" on Kathleen Ford at a Tiger Bay forum.

For the first time Friday, Rick Baker's words were stronger than Kathleen Ford's.

He stopped turning the other cheek to criticism from his opponent in the mayoral race. And Ford assumed Baker's customary role, holding back on the criticism and largely sticking to the issues.

Baker told the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club that Ford brags about her four years' experience on the City Council, but the divisive body has "embarrassed our city," largely because of Ford. He said Ford once, without basis, accused the police chief of tipping off drug dealers that they would be arrested. And he said she regularly "humiliated our city employees on public TV."

"These are hard words," Baker told the crowd at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. "Those who know me best know I use hard words very cautiously. But this is not a game, folks. This is about the future of our city."

Trying a new approach makes sense for Baker. His comfortable lead in the primary has dripped away as Ford has pummeled him with accusations that he lacks experience. A Times poll published Friday showed the pair in a statistical dead heat less than two weeks before the March 27 general election, with one in three voters undecided.

Ford, again dressed in red and pushing her fiery reform agenda, rekindled the experience issue Friday and said St. Petersburg doesn't need to offer Baker the mayor's office for "on-the-job training."

Though Baker has typically been the one to open debates by summarizing his four key issues, Friday it was Ford starting with a list: The next mayor must replace water and sewer lines, do a better job managing city government, solve problems in the Police Department, promote economic development and fight for better schools.

Tiger Bay Club members pride themselves on tough questions, and Ford got some stinging ones Friday.

Connie Kone, whose term on the City Council overlapped Ford's for two years, accused Ford of habitual grandstanding.

"How often did you go down the hall to try to resolve issues in a compatible manner, and how often did you just wait for the cameras to roll so you could publicly discredit a mayor you disliked?" Kone asked.

Ford looked at Kone and cooly replied: "You know, Ms. Kone, our council has gotten a lot nicer since you left."

The crowd erupted in murmurs, and Kone clapped her hands in the air and grinned. Even Ford smiled, then got serious and said it's tough to do the job without complete information.

Ford's personal style came up several times, even as she tried to dismiss it.

"The issue of style is sometimes used as a red herring, because if you don't have substance in the issues, you can attack the other person's style," she said. "I can get along with anybody."

But Baker was quick to say that Ford hasn't always stuck to the issues: She has said she doesn't want another "milquetoast millionaire mayor" and accused Baker of selling out to special interests and the "good ol' boys."

He said a mayor's style is all-important because the mayor often serves as the city's ambassador.

Dave Zachem, a property appraiser and Lakewood resident, even got Ford to concede that her temper is a problem.

"You can't seem to control jumping in there and tearing someone up or criticizing," said Zachem, a Tiger Bay member. "I don't mind that for council people. Hey, it's great entertainment. But as a candidate for mayor, do you recognize this in yourself and what is your plan to control it?"

"I've heard that criticism," Ford said, cocking her head to the side. "I have been working on it."

Even though the crowd of several hundred seemed to favor Baker with whoops and applause, members posed questions about his connections to the Republican Party and Gov. Jeb Bush in a nonpartisan race.

Baker replied that supporters on both sides have connections to political parties. He noted that Peter Rudy Wallace, a former Democratic speaker of the Florida House, helped host a fundraiser for Ford.

As the debate ended, Ford made a public gesture of peace toward Kone, who won the Fang and Claw Award, a spotted stuffed cat, for posing the toughest question. Ford grabbed the prize and gave it to Kone, hugging her and planting a big kiss on her cheek.

As cameras flashed and everyone clapped, Kone whispered in Ford's ear that she was sorry it was necessary to ask the question. Ford whispered back that it was okay.

"She reacted (to the question) as I knew she would, with a personal attack," Kone said afterward. "She'll hate me forever."

Baker's supporters seemed delighted as he stepped down from the dais.

"I thought it was huge," volunteer Terry Brett said. "He's been laying back for so long."