TAMPA — The next mayor doesn't take take office for nearly seven months. Still, it's never too soon to make a good impression, which is why six of the candidates took the stage at Hillsborough Community College's Dale Mabry campus to define themselves on Wednesday evening.
Former Tampa police chief Jane Castor may be leading the early polling and retired banker and philanthropist David Straz Jr. may be leading the cash race, but it quickly became clear that the leading target in the race is former county commissioner Ed Turanchik.
In a discussion about the Tampa Bay Rays' proposed new ballpark in Ybor City, Turanchik said he was the mayoral candidate with the best experience in putting stadium deals together, citing his involvement in getting Raymond James Stadium built in 1998.
If he's elected, Turanchik told the crowd: "We're not going to do a bad deal and we're not going to lose a good one."
City Council member Mike Suarez challenged his fellow candidate, Turanchik, saying the city got "screwed" on the Bucs' deal.
When Malcolm Glazer bought the team in 1996, he declared the old Tampa Stadium inadequate. To keep the team in Tampa, local officials put together the "Community Investment Tax," a 30-year, half-cent tax that voters approved to pay for a publicly-financed NFL stadium.
Turanchik blamed former Mayor Dick Greco for the final deal.
"Dick Greco is to blame for the bad deal you just took credit for?" Suarez quipped.
City Council member Harry Cohen also chided Turanchik for his lukewarm-at-best support for the proposed one-cent sales tax increase to fund Hillsborough's transportation needs on the Nov. 6 ballot.
A good mayoral candidate, Cohen said, is open to ideas that aren't their own.
Save for those fireworks, however, the 75-minute debate was a civil affair focused on the nuts-and-bolts of city government.
When asked if any candidate would commit now to raising taxes to resolve a looming debt crisis in Tampa's finances, no one said they would.
When asked if they support All for Transportation's sales tax referendum, everyone raised their hand in support except for Turanchik.
The debate also offered political newcomers a chance to introduce themselves to voters.
Small business branding consultant Topher Morrison pitched gondolas, a roof-top city and Elon Musk's Hyperloop as the answers to Tampa's identity problem. But he also said he wouldn't cut any money from the police and fire departments to make those projects happen.
And he got a round of applause for saying a visit to East Tampa made him "ashamed to be a white man."
All of the candidates said the right things about the city's poor and minority neighborhoods, but their promises didn't impress first-time candidate LaVaughn King, who grew up in East Tampa.
"I don't believe any of these (candidates) about this commitment to east Tampa," said King, who said he favors bolstering the city's arts community and attracting an NBA team to the city.
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Castor largely stayed out of the fray, stressing her strong leadership qualities. The Tampa Police Department's controversial practice of disproportionately ticketing black bicyclists during her time as chief didn't even come up.
"Our future necessitates a strong leader to take this city forward," Castor said.
Not every candidate showed up to the first debate. Straz, who has led everyone with his massive campaign spending, was at Berkeley Prep being honored for his charitable work for the school, according to his campaign.
His absence was marked by an empty podium and placard.
Straz's campaign said the Berkeley event had been scheduled much earlier.
Longshot candidate Michael Anthony Hazard, whose campaign has been dormant since the Times reported in May that he acknowledged voting despite being a felon, also did not attend.
The debate was hosted by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce's Emerging Leaders of Tampa Bay, and it was moderated by Politifact executive director Aaron Sharockman.
Earlier this year, the Tampa City Council approved lengthening the election by a month. Term-limited incumbent Mayor Bob Buckhorn will now turn the city over to his successor on May 1.
The first round of voting is March 5, 2019. If no one reaches more than 50 percent of the vote, then the two top vote-getters will advance to the April 23 runoff.
So far, the mayoral race in Florida's third-largest city has been relatively quiet. The looming midterm elections and the hotly-contested gubernatorial and U.S. Senate campaigns have sucked away much of the political oxygen — and lots of the cash.
Perhaps the biggest storyline so far is the amount of money being spent by Straz, who is largely self-funding his run for mayor. So far, he's spent more than $865, 000 about four times more than the other candidates combined outlays. He's also the only candidate to have launched TV ads.
Of course, much could change before the week-long qualifying period ends Jan. 18.
More than 100 people who attended Wednesday's debate witnessed a civil, perhaps tentative, start to what promises to be a very busy campaign as the year draws to a close.
"What you saw here tonight was an example of how people can come together, talk about issues and not be disagreeable," said Cohen, who said restoring civility to politics was part of his platform.
Contact Charlie Frago at email@example.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.