A standing-room-only crowd packed a Midtown church banquet hall Tuesday to witness the first face-off between Mayor Rick Kriseman and former mayor Rick Baker in what is a watershed mayoral contest in the city's history.
Church fans were passed out as hundreds of people pressed into the room at Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church and the temperatures climbed. And that was before the forum began.
Once it did, the political punches flew fast and furious.
Kriseman accused Baker of presiding over a dysfunctional police department in an era of bloodshed in the city marked by high-speed pursuits of criminals.
"Cars flew down the street putting our children at risk," Kriseman said.
Baker accused Kriseman of ignoring Midtown and sitting in his City Hall office instead of visiting the city's black neighborhoods. He repeatedly brought up the closure of the Walmart Neighborhood Market in Midtown's Tangerine Plaza.
"They knew what kind of doughnuts I liked," Baker said, referencing his frequent visits to the store, which had been a Sweetbay Supermarket during his 2001-2010 tenure.
SUNSHINE CITY SHOWDOWN: Keep up with the Tampa Bay Times coverage of the St. Petersburg mayoral race.
Audience members asked tough questions, often aimed at drawing attention to either Baker or Kriseman's perceived weaknesses.
Baker was asked why his workers for his administration slashed the tents of the homeless during his administration. He blamed the decision on a subordinate, which caused Kriseman to criticize him for not taking responsibility as a mayor.
"It doesn't work that way. When you're mayor, you're responsible whether you like it or not," Kriseman said.
Baker responded that when the city's sewage crisis began in 2015, Kriseman evaded responsibility.
"He blamed everybody on the planet," Baker said. "And he fired a few people along the way."
The Mt. Zion forum was opened by Pastor Louis Murphy Sr., who leads one of the city's largest African-American congregations. Winning support from the city's black community is widely considered to be a key path to victory for both candidates, each of whom covet Murphy's endorsement.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
The pastor told the Tampa Bay Times after the forum ended he would take some time to make a decision on who he would support.
Murphy asked the crowd before the debate began to show respect. The crowd largely obeyed the minister's plea.
Church organizers had invited the public to submit questions in advance of the event, which was moderated by former 10News WSTP anchor Tammie Fields, who also took live questions from the audience.
Baker, who turned 61 on Tuesday, touted his administration's involvement in bringing a bank, grocery store and other investments into Midtown.
He criticized Kriseman's position that constructing buildings was the wrong solution to the neighborhoods' persistent poverty.
Kriseman, 54, compared Baker's work in Midtown to President George W. Bush declaring a premature victory in 2003, early in the Iraq War.
"The problem is, he did what Bush did on that destroyer, he declared victory and said mission accomplished," Kriseman said.
Baker responded that Kriseman's solution to Midtown's economic woes have been slipshod. He repeatedly bashed the mayor's temporary shuttle program that takes residents who used to shop at the Tangerine Plaza Walmart to a larger Walmart on 34th Street.
"I personally believe people shouldn't have to be bused out of this community to go to the grocery store," Baker said.
The two also tangled over partisan politics and its role in the race for a non-partisan office. Baker said, as he has for months, that Kriseman wants to make the race partisan. Kriseman is a Democrat. Baker is a Republican.
Baker said local politics shouldn't be partisan. Kriseman ticked off national issues that his party supports such as preserving affordable health care and said party affiliation is a reflection of someone's values.
Baker and Kriseman both said they support opening future debates, including a July 25 event to be held by the Times, Bay News 9 and St. Petersburg College, to the other five candidates who have filed to run.
Murphy had said only Kriseman and Baker had been invited because they had been candidates when the even was being planned, a reason objected to by supporters of Jesse Nevel, also an early candidate.
The other candidates on the ballot for the Aug. 29 primary are Paul Congemi, Anthony Cates III, Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter, Jesse Nevel and Ernisa Barnwell.
Murphy recognized Nevel and Lassiter in the crowd. Several supporters of Nevel questioned why he and Lassiter couldn't participate.
Baker and Kriseman's frequent jabs at one another drew a rebuke from community activist Ashley Green, who said the crowd had obeyed Murphy's request to be respectful but they had not.
Fields then joined in by scolding Kriseman for being petty when he noted that Baker had taken a long time to arrive at an answer to what his highest priority would be as mayor.
"Just keeping it real," Fields quipped, bringing loud applause from the crowd.
Later, she did the same to Baker, who apologized, saying he couldn't help himself.
But when he criticized the mayor's frequent ground-breakings in recent weeks as being politically timed, some in the crowd objected. Baker had none of it.
"One person's petty is another person's fact, I'm sorry," Baker said.
Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.