How many Tampa mayoral forums are too many? Depends on whom you ask

By the time voters head to the polls March 5, most of the candidates will have attended more than two-dozen forums.
Tampa mayoral candidates at a forum at Blake High School. [Photo by Charlie Frago}
Tampa mayoral candidates at a forum at Blake High School. [Photo by Charlie Frago}
Published February 16

TAMPA — Westshore, Ybor City, Forest Hills, New Tampa, Downtown, plus many more all over east, west, north and south Tampa.

Like the Johnny Cash song, the seven candidates for Tampa mayor will have been nearly everywhere by the time voters head to the polls March 5.

By Election Day, most of the candidates will have spoken at more than two dozen forums, sometimes before crowds in the hundreds and sometimes a lot smaller. They've answered the same questions so many times they can recite each other's answers.

Have there been too many forums?

Some candidates say yes. Others, particularly those with fewer dollars in their campaign accounts, say no. But, mostly, they all go. Night after night.

City Council member Harry Cohen has missed one forum. Former police chief Jane Castor arrived late at another, forcing her to answer questions from the moderator alone. Retired banker and philanthropist David Straz has missed at least five.

But only one debate was televised and that was before the field was set.

"What we’re doing now ain't working and it ought to be pretty damn obvious," says longtime civic activist Rick Fernandez. The Tampa Heights resident is about as plugged into local politics as you can be and he's found it hard to keep up with the forums, which are often poorly publicized.

He'd like to see fewer forums and have them televised when possible and advertised more heavily. "A lot of people don't even know there's an election going on,’’ he said. “If I'm having trouble finding out about them, they're clueless."

Several candidates agree. A forum every night cuts into the meet-and-greets and door-knocking that form the bedrock of a local campaign. Instead of an extended conversation with small groups of voters or the person who answers the door, the candidates are rushing through 60-second sound bites about such complicated policy issues as transit, affordable housing and economic development.

In short, the argument goes, it's become a one-way conversation, with candidates talking to voters but not getting the chance to hear what’s on their minds.

"I do think in the future it would be helpful to have more of a streamlined process," Cohen said, noting that only a Jan. 9 debate was televised. "That does a disservice. You want to reach as many people as possible."

Mayor Bob Buckhorn has a different take. The pace of mayoral forums in 2003 (when he lost) and 2011 (he won) were just as frenetic, he said.

"The vote for mayor is such a personal, intimate decision. It's almost like the Iowa or New Hampshire primary. They won’t even consider you unless they’ve seen you three times. It's retail politics at its finest," Buckhorn said.

Cohen said an independent, bipartisan debate commission might be the best way to organize the process moving forward. That idea also appeals to former county commissioner Ed Turanchik, another mayoral candidate.

"The only time we do meet and greets now is on the weekend," Turanchik said before a Wednesday night forum hosted by the Hillsborough County LGBTA Democratic Caucus. A commission would make debates more interactive and productive, he said.

An independent debate commission was formed in late 2017 in Orange County. But former police chief Jane Castor, who a local poll shows leading the race by a wide margin, doesn't like the idea of "a panel of elite politicos" determining the number of debates. She joked Tuesday night at a Forest Hills forum that the biggest surprise of the race for her has been the unlimited appetite of Tampa voters for mayoral forums.

"We've certainly had a ton of debates," she said. "But my position is: the more the merrier."

That's City Council member Mike Suarez's feeling, too. Suarez trails most of the pack in fundraising, netting $158,2626 through the end of January — almost exactly 10 times less than Straz, whose largely self-funded campaign has already smashed the city record.

"The more we're out there, the more it breaks through all the TV commercials and mailers," he said.

Tampa's mayoral races don't attract many voters. Just under 42,000 ballots were cast in the first-round in 2011, the last really competitive election. That’s a 22 percent turnout rate. By contrast, St. Petersburg's 2017 mayoral contest drew 56,509 in an August primary in a city almost one-third smaller.

That worries neighborhood activists, including Marlin Anderson, who has helped organize well-attended mayoral forums in South Tampa for nearly a decade. This year, 400 people attended a forum organized by 23 neighborhood groups. Bigger, preferably televised, forums might help with turnout, he said.

At the very least, it would give candidates a breather.

"I know it's got to be exhausting for these candidates to go to so many forums," Anderson said.

Dick Greco Jr., a retired judge who entered the race after the televised debate, said he would support consolidating some of the forums. But he doesn’t want to deny Tampa residents the chance to question mayoral candidates.

"My campaign is all about connections, so I wouldn't want to deny people the right to have forums just because the candidates didn't want to go to so many," Greco said.

Straz released a statement saying his board duties at charitable organizations has caused him to miss some forums, but he's enjoyed the ones he has attended.

"Because he is not a politician, he has come in contact with people and organizations and learned something at every forum," wrote spokesman Jarrod Holbrook in an email.

Topher Morrison, a branding consultant, said he'd like to see more debates. Forums and debates help his longshot campaign get its message out, he said.

There is no right number of forums, he said.

"People like to complain about things. If you have 1 or 2 forums, they're going to say it's not enough. If you have a lot of forums, people are going to say it's too many," Morrison said.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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