TAMPA — Jane Castor, whose policy of ticketing black bicyclists drew a Justice Department review while she was Tampa police chief, came under attack Thursday evening during an NAACP-sponsored forum in the race for mayor
But it wasn't because of the "biking while black" policy revealed by the Tampa Bay Times in 2015, for which candidate Castor has repeatedly apologized.
Instead, her rival Ed Turanchik zeroed in on her relationship with Jeff Vinik, the Tampa Bay Lightning owner, downtown developer and philanthropist who has endorsed Castor and given her campaign at least $50,000.
"This is a major issue in this campaign," said Turanchik, a former county commissioner, staring down the row of candidates at Castor, who was seated on the opposite end of the stage at Middleton High School in East Tampa.
Last week, another candidate — retired banker and philanthropist David Straz — said Vinik should be investigated for his influence on operations of the state's third-largest city.
Turanchik has also said City Hall unfairly favors Vinik. He has called for the next mayor to maintain an "arms length" relationship with Vinik, who is building the $3 billion Water Street project in the Channelside area.
On Thursday, Turanchik asked whether Castor would return Vinik's contributions "to make sure there's no cloud over your relationship."
Castor replied, "No, I won't return those and you tried to get his endorsement and didn't get it."
"The truth is, I'm not for sale," she added. "Never have been and never will be."
After the forum, Turanchik told the Times he had never asked Vinik for an endorsement. A Vinik spokesman was unable to confirm that late Thursday.
Vinik is part of FBN Partners, a group of local investors who in 2017 loaned $12 million to Times Publishing Co., which owns the Times.
The Thursday mayoral forum before a predominantly black audience was considered by some of Castor's rivals as an opportunity to challenge her again on the divisive policy she administered as police chief, under which officers issued a disproportionate number of tickets to black bicyclists in what police described as an effort to stem more serious criminal activity.
Castor, the front-runner among the seven candidates in polling so far, received one question during the forum about racial equity in policing but never was called upon to defend her record as chief.
Candidate Straz, as with Castor and her Vinik connection, was put on the spot for his past affinity with another prominent figure — President Donald Trump.
Straz voted for Republican Trump in the 2016 election and was asked by mayoral candidate Topher Morrison, a branding consultant, whether he will make the same choice in the 2020 election.
Said Straz, "Ladies and gentlemen, yes, I voted for Trump. And it was a mistake, a big mistake, because he doesn't have David Straz's values. And I wouldn't do it again. And I apologize for voting for him."
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Straz has contributed to both Democratic and Republican candidates in the past and changed his party affiliation from no-party to Democrat before he announced his run for mayor. The Tampa mayor and city council positions are non-partisan but all seven council members and Mayor Buckhorn are Democrats.
Earlier in the day, Straz won the endorsement of the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, a newspaper serving the city's black community. Morrison recently was endorsed by the Hillsborough County Black Democratic Caucus.
During the 83-minute forum at Middleton High, the seven candidates also discussed now-familiar issues of affordable housing, city contracts for minority-owned businesses, and whether they would hire a person of color to a senior leadership position.
It was the second forum of the day for most of the candidates. More than two dozen have been held in the race to replace term-limited Mayor Bob Buckhorn in the March 5 city election.
Today, a bilingual forum on Hispanic issues will be held at the Tampa Bay campus of the Ana G. Mendez University System, 3655 W. Waters Ave. The debate begins at 5 p.m.
Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @charliefrago.