TAMPA — Should Tampa follow St. Petersburg's lead and install a deputy mayor to help run Florida's third-largest city?
That question was posed to the seven candidates running for Tampa mayor at a Tiger Bay Club forum Friday, sparking a conversation about diversity, corruption and who might take over from the next mayor if fate intervened.
Debra Bellanti, a Democrat who lost a Tampa state House race to Rep. Jackie Toledo last year, also asked the candidates which of their opponents they would pick.
Former police chief Jane Castor, who led the field by a wide margin in a recent local poll, said she would consider hiring a deputy mayor. The city's growth makes it intriguing, she said, and she had deputy chiefs aiding her during her tenure as police chief from 2009 to 2015.
"If I had to pick one, I'd pick Harry Cohen," said Castor, who has said previously that she thinks Cohen is the second-best candidate to replace term-limited Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
Next up was Cohen. The term-limited City Council member who represents South Tampa was non-committal about appointing a deputy or vice mayor, but said if he did, he'd pick a minority.
"To make sure that there's true diversity at the top of the mayor's office," he said, as Castor, seated behind him, appeared somewhat taken aback. "With all due respect to all the wonderful people up here, I'm not sure that's the pool I would be looking to to fill that position."
He said he had great respect for all the candidates, especially the one to his left, he said, nodding at Castor, who smiled.
Buckhorn promised to hire two deputy mayors during his successful 2011 campaign. But though he reorganized city government, he didn't create those positions.
Dick Greco Jr. quipped: "Well, the good news for you, Harry, is if Jane wins, you got a job." Cohen pointed out that council members are barred from working for the city for one year after they leave office.
Greco, whose father, former mayor Dick Greco Sr., was in attendance, said he intends to have one or two deputy mayors.
"I would put, I believe, at least one African-American as vice-mayor and possibly then a person of some other type of minority background as the other because I think it's much more reflective of our community as a whole," he said.
Small businessman Topher Morrison said the campaign has taught him "how deep corruption can go" so he would appoint someone "incorruptible," naming black activist Connie Burton as his deputy mayor.
Retired banker and philanthropist David Straz said he'd be open to the idea.
"I would select a person of color if I did something like this," he said.
City Council member Mike Suarez noted that if St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman had been tapped to run as lieutenant governor with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, who is appointed, not elected, would have assumed the mayor's post.
"That would have created a crisis in which the deputy mayor, who would have taken over, was not an elected official, and I don't believe in doing any of that," Suarez said.
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That remark prompted a tweet from Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby to clarify that Tomalin, an African-American, would have become mayor because she also serves as City Administrator.
Suarez said mayors from Bill Poe to Sandy Freedman appointed liaisons to the black community. "And then it stopped," Suarez said. "I think it's important that we put someone in there that reports directly to the mayor that looks at those interests."
Turanchik was the only candidate to say he had no interest in appointing a deputy mayor.
"I'm running for mayor to fix thirty years of mess," he said."I'm not interested in being a cheerleader. I'm interested in being a quarterback."
The candidates were also asked about the influence of money in politics. According to the most recent campaign finance filings, Straz, who has vaporized previous records for spending, leads the pack with $1.92-million raised in his mostly self-funded campaign. Castor has raised about $661,000 between her campaign and an affiliated political committee, followed by Cohen with $455,000 and Turanchik at just over $348,000. Suarez and Morrison (who has no political committee) trail the pack with about $159,000 and $80,480 respectively.
Turanchik, who ran and lost in 2011, pointed to Greco Sr. in the crowd and noted that the spending in this year's race would dwarf their race eight years ago. "It is what it is," Turanchik said.
Most of the candidates decried the role of money in local politics, but no one took up the call to follow St. Petersburg's ban on PACs. Suarez and Cohen both alluded to Straz's wealth, which a recent financial disclosure listed at $426 million, as a new element in Tampa politics.
Straz said he didn't like PACs, but didn't apologize for pouring his own wealth into an attempt to become Tampa's next CEO.
"Anybody can make it. It's hard work, but go after it. If you want to use your own means, use your own means," Straz said.
Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.