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Iorio, Sanchez trade barbs in Tampa debate

In front of a prime-time television audience Tuesday, mayoral candidates Pam Iorio and Frank Sanchez sat inches apart, all smiles.

But as they turned and faced each other, they traded barbs about who was offering the most specific plans for the city and who had the best background to lead Tampa.

Sanchez, trailing Iorio in the polls with two weeks left before the mayoral runoff, took jabs at Iorio for lacking business credentials and for giving vague answers that he called "Pam Speak."

The two candidates also spoke frankly about eliminating "token" positions for minorities at City Hall, which carry prestige but no power.

Sanchez, a former Clinton White House aide who opened a consulting firm in 1991, cast himself as a businessman who could solve problems that politicians like Iorio had not fixed.

"The single most defining experience has been running my own business," Sanchez said. "I am not a career politician, but I do bring a fresh perspective."

Iorio turned to the camera and reminded voters that she was someone they knew _ and could trust.

"Voters, you have known me for the past 18 years as someone you have counted on to be able to get the job done," she said.

As a county commissioner for eight years and elections supervisor for a decade, she touted her work instituting new touch screen voting machines, and working to improve roads.

Coming into the only runoff debate on network TV, political analysts said Sanchez had to give voters a compelling reason Tuesday to choose him over the better-known Iorio.

Iorio got more than twice the number of votes than Sanchez in the March 4 election and has picked up every major endorsement since then.

When the candidates got to ask each other questions, Sanchez had his chance. He accused Iorio of proposing to raise property taxes when she served on the Hillsborough County Commission in 1990.

"I believe you have your facts wrong," Iorio said. "Whoever briefed you has briefed you incorrectly."

"The briefing was an article in the St. Petersburg Times," Sanchez said.

The audience at the debate, which was sponsored by the Times and WTSP-Ch. 10, roared.

Sanchez's campaign staff then gave reporters a 1990 Times article, which they said Sanchez relied on to accuse Iorio of proposing to raise property taxes. In the story, Iorio is reported to have suggested adding $1 for each $1,000 of taxable property value to pay for stormwater improvements.

After the debate, Iorio said her suggestion came because the commission was unhappy with a stormwater tax that charged small businesses a sliding fee, based on their size. Iorio said the commission wanted a fairer, more flat tax.

The commission also had to eliminate a stormwater tax and then re-create it in a different form because of legal problems with the stormwater ordinance.

"I have stated flatly that property taxes will not be raised," Iorio said.

Throughout the debate, Sanchez accused Iorio of lacking detailed plans and not providing specific answers. Asked what she would do to improve education as mayor, Iorio talked about creating a youth corps to inspire school children.

"Out of due respect, it did not sound very specific," Sanchez said. "Pam speak is very general without a lot of specifics."

Sanchez proposed creating a city mentoring program, which he would encourage city employees to participate in.

"I don't know that Frank has been any more specific than I have been," Iorio said.

Sanchez also asked Iorio about how she would improve commerce at Tampa's port, and when she replied, he asked her a second time for more specifics.

"The port is only part of the mayor's job," Iorio said. "The real issue is one of leadership."

Sanchez also blamed the media for focusing too much attention on his multiple statements about whether the all-male Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla should admit women. Sanchez appeared to take one position, and then reverse it after taking heat from Krewe members.

"The only people who have expressed an interest in this are two or three reporters," Sanchez said. "I will tell you what voters have told me: Don't let the reporters take you down this path."

Both Sanchez and Iorio agreed that the mayor should not name an African-American as a special assistant, which is what mayors have done for decades. It's better to give minorities real authority at City Hall, not just a title, they said.

"In my administration, there will be no room for what you seem to be describing as a token position," Sanchez said. "I think we can do better than that."

Iorio agreed and pointed to her record as election supervisor, where she said about 33 percent of her staff were minorities. She said one of four managers were minorities as well.

Both candidates promised to maintain high ethical standards, and criticized how Mayor Dick Greco kept city housing chief Steve LaBrake after a federal investigation into his conduct.

Sanchez stood by one of his key supporters, former Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez, who left the courthouse amid scandal. Alvarez introduced Sanchez after the March 4 election.

WTSP-Ch. 10 conducted an unscientific e-mail poll during the debate that asked viewers who had won. About 67 percent thought Sanchez had won, and about 33 percent thought Iorio came out on top.

Political consultant Wayne Garcia thought Sanchez made some gains against Iorio.

"I thought Sanchez did a great job," he said. "He has ratcheted his game up, but Pam seems to be pacing him."

_ Times staff writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report. Staff writer David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or