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MAYOR'S RACE INFLAMED

By bringing up an old rumor, Kathleen Ford changes the tone of the campaign.

Forget that talk about Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster running a respectful, amiable campaign for mayor of St. Petersburg.

That prospect ended when Ford, during a meeting this week with members of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, suggested out of the blue that Foster might have known more than he let on about late City Council member John Bryan allegedly being a pedophile.

"The fact that she wants to spread malicious rumors and gossip to the detriment of another family for her own gain, I just think it's sick," a livid Foster said, referring to Bryan's family. "That is absolutely crazy stuff. ... It says a lot about her character."

Bryan committed suicide two years ago amid revelations that police were investigating allegations that he sexually abused three girls, including two of his adopted daughters.

Ford said Foster publicly insisted he had never heard any rumors about Bryan's inappropriate behavior with girls, when in fact the two had discussed the subject years earlier.

"He should have not publicly lied," Ford said, recounting that she and Foster discussed the rumors in 1998, shortly before the City Council chose Foster over Bryan to fill a council vacancy.

"If somebody's going to publicly lie about that, what else are they not telling the truth about?" Ford asked.

Foster said it's a "despicable" Ford who is lying.

"That is absolutely not true. You don't forget something like that," Foster said. "I don't pass on gossip and spread rumors, and people that do should be ashamed of themselves."

Foster never heard any talk about Bryan and young girls, he said, and if Ford knew something she should have acted.

"If she had any inkling that this was going on, other than rumor and gossip, she had an obligation to report it," Foster said.

Ford said she - and Foster - never heard anything more than rumor. Asked whether she was implying Foster should have done something about Bryan, Ford said she only raised the issue to point out he was capable of lying.

Ford made the comment during her interview with chamber members as part of the endorsement process for the chamber's political action committee.

During a discussion about baseball, she accused one member of the chamber's interview panel, Bill Foster supporter Ed Montanari, of having been in on the secret plan to build a new waterfront Rays stadium.

Then, to prove her point that Foster knew about secret stadium plans, she brought up John Bryan and said Foster also may have known he was a pedophile, according to people in the meeting.

"There was stunned silence," banker Matt Becker recalled. "It was out of context within the meeting. ... There were no direct attacks at her. There was nothing in my memory that tells me she should have felt threatened."

Ford and Foster have long been friendly and after surviving the crowded primary campaign suggested they would run cordial, issue-oriented campaigns. The gentleness did not last long.

This week Ford has said Foster's creationist beliefs would be bad for the city and suggested he lied about John Bryan.

The attacks could increase doubts about Foster, but Ford also risks bolstering her critics' charges that she is divisive and mean-spirited.

"If she's willing to defame people sitting at the Chamber of Commerce, at a place where she's hoping to get an endorsement, where else is she willing to spread this trash?" Foster said.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

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