TAMPA — The looming midterm election in Hillsborough County with its proposed sales tax hike for transportation improvements dominated a debate Tuesday among the seven candidates running for Tampa mayor.
At a forum hosted by the Carlton Fields law firm at its Westshore offices, the discussion kept circling back to Tampa's transit woes and how best to solve them.
One point of contention: The citizens initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot to raise Hillsborough County's sales tax by a penny on the dollar to pay for transportation upgrades.
Candidate Ed Turanchik, a former county commissioner, criticized the plan as costly and ineffective.
“I’m pretty sure the highest sales tax rate in the state of Florida is not a competitively good thing,” said Turanchik, speaking of the 8 percent total sales tax Hillsborough would pay if voters approve the measure.
"I'm pretty sure that paying for our transportation infrastructure by placing a tax on low-income families without requiring road users to pay their fair share or requiring developers to pay their fair share is not a good thing."
Turanchik called for local low-cost solutions with private sector initiatives leading the way and applauded the return of the Cross-Bay Ferry, which he has championed.
Tampa Bay, he said, is the only major bay in the United States without regular ferry service.
Turanchik's position on the All for Transportation tax appears to have hardened since the first debate Oct. 3, when he said he might vote for it.
His opposition to the proposal drew criticism from other candidates, including former police chief Jane Castor, who said the city hasn't made any substantial transit improvements in her lifetime.
"We don't lack good ideas. What we lack is the funding," Castor said. "I back it 100 percent."
Turanchik shot back that the city hasn't had good ideas.
"We've had terrible plans," he said.
The Tampa city election is March 5.
Tuesday was the second time the mayoral candidates gathered in a forum, this time for what Carlton Fields called a broad-brush discussion of the candidates’ vision for economic development.
Last month, Turanchik protested what he said was the organizers' plans to keep the event private, a charge they denied.
This time, retired banker and philanthropist David Straz Jr. joined the fray, having missed the Oct. 3 debate. Straz read from prepared notes for many of his answers, the only candidate to do so, and called his lack of political experience a bonus.
"I'm no politician," said Straz, whose first run for elected office has featured a blitz of television ads as he outspends his opponents by a wide margin. "I've never been at the public trough."
Straz emphasized his business acumen and said he would create a quality-of-life cabinet to preserve Tampa's livability.
That position brought criticism from City Council member Harry Cohen, who noted that the city's trash collection, sewage and water departments weren't part of Straz's proposed reorganization at City Hall. Those services form the bedrock of a city's quality of life, Cohen said.
Topher Morrison, also a political novice whose speaking skills distinguished him during the first forum, found himself a target this time around.
Cohen criticized Morrison’s plan to rip up the two waterside lanes of Bayshore Boulevard for pedestrians and bicycles. Residents oppose it, said Cohen, who represents the area on the council, adding that the move would impede drivers headed to Tampa General Hospital or MacDill Air Force Base.
City Council member Mike Suarez, a third-generation Tampa resident, also took a swipe at Morrison, who moved to the city as an adult.
Morrison has said the city lacks a viable brand for people to rally around. But that’s not how long-time residents feel, Suarez said.
"People that are here? They know what Tampa is. They know what the brand is," Suarez said.
Suarez and Cohen had no criticism for one another, highlighting instead their nearly eight years on the council. But they pounced on rivals, with civility, much like they did in the first debate.
Morrison didn't respond to the jabs. He asked the audience to text his campaign for detailed policy proposals.
"I'm a small business owner with a big vision," he said.
LaVaughn King, another first-time candidate, said he is the most dynamic of the group, touting his track and field accomplishments at the University of Florida and his personal story of overcoming a modest upbringing in East Tampa.
"My parents didn't graduate from high school. My grandmother was a cotton picker in South Carolina," King said. "So who better to speak to those needs and impediments than someone who overcame those conditions?"
Gary Sasso, the Carlton Fields CEO who moderated the Tuesday event, praised the candidates for keeping the discussion civil in contrast to the divisive politics at the state and national level.
Sasso also had kind words for the crowd of several dozen people, nearly all of whom stood for the two-hour event.