TAMPA — The first mayoral face-off since the race came down to Jane Castor vs. David Straz took place in a historic West Tampa library. It was anything but quiet.
Emotions ran high during Thursday night’s 56-minute forum between the supporters of both candidates. There was also occasional heckling from the crowd and one incident cleared some of the room and necessitated a brief pause.
FROM THE TAMPA BAY TIMES: Complete Guide to Tampa’s 2019 mayor’s race.
The stage was set earlier in the day, when Straz agreed to participate in the forum, organized by the Hillsborough County Democratic Black Caucus, and three other debates on TV and radio leading up to the April 23 election.
The self-proclaimed 76-year-old underdog and philanthropist arrived at the West Tampa Branch Library ready to tussle with Castor, the 59-year-old former police chief who tripled his vote count in the March 5 election.
But Straz missed at least 10 candidate forums leading up to the election and has already missed one appearance with Castor. He plans to skip Friday’s debate in front of the Tampa Tiger Bay Club, too.
In their first head-to-head meeting, racial profiling, "biking while black" and a City Hall culture that ignores minority communities and businesses were foremost on the agenda.
Castor again apologized for the Tampa Police Department disproportionately citing black bicyclists for minor infractions during her tenure as police chief, a disparity first reported by the Tampa Bay Times in 2015.
Then Straz seized on his outsider status and said he could do better.
“I didn't do it,” he said to the cheers of dozens of his supporters. He vowed to tell his police chief if elected that “there will be no more of this stuff in East Tampa.”
Castor rarely took the bait, although she occasionally flashed her irritation. When Straz said he would order Tampa police to stop making marijuana-related arrests, Castor noted that city had already decriminalized small amounts of the drug several years ago.
“That's been taken care of,” she said. “So you don't have to worry about that, Mr. Straz.”
And when Straz reiterated his apology for voting for President Donald Trump in 2016, Castor replied succinctly:
“I did not vote for Donald Trump.”
Straz did not retreat. He criticized Castor's acceptance of campaign contributions from Domain Homes, a builder whose development in East Tampa has rankled some residents as unaffordable and aimed at newcomers, not residents. And he repeated his long-standing campaign theme that minority communities have been mistreated in Tampa.
“What's happened in the black community is simply not right,” he said.
Most of the questions revolved around issues important to the city black community, which comprises about one-quarter of the population. Both Castor and Straz vowed to increase the percentage of city contracts awarded to black-owned businesses. However, both avoided naming a specific percentage that would be awarded, which was part of the question asked by moderator Ella Coffee.
Both candidates also said the city's municipal workforce needs to become more diverse, and both vowed to step up efforts to build more affordable housing and slow the speed of gentrification in poorer, minority neighborhoods.
Instead of substance, it was often tone that separated Castor and Straz, which was highlighted by their responses when asked how to mend distrust between City Hall and the black community.
“It's a good question, but I'm not the one to ask it to,” Straz said. “I simply will not allow these things to happen.”
Straz also promised to make sure the police chief reports to the mayor.
“The police chief has always reported to the mayor,” Castor replied.
“That's the problem,” Straz said.
“That's the problem?” Castor said, pausing while looking quizzically at the retired banker. “The relationships in our community aren't perfect, but they are good.
“And what it comes down to: a relationship — whether it's personal, whether it's professional, is communication.”
Castor emphasized her 31-year career as a police officer, culminating in her tenure as chief from 2009 to 2015. She also displayed knowledge of city contracts and housing incentives that Straz himself admitted he needed to bone up on.
Straz highlighted his business experience and financial acumen and boasted of his relationship with former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who he said he was going to meet with there next week. He vowed to get Tampa the support from Bloomberg's philanthropic foundation that was awarded to St. Petersburg last year.
Straz boasted of his connections. Most don't have access to powerful people like Bloomberg, Straz said, but added: “I do.”
The two candidates likely won't faces each other again until April, when their televised debates are set to start.