TAMPA — Jane Castor arrived Monday evening at the Falk Theatre for the first mayoral forum since she finished in the top spot in last week’s primary election.
The 1,000-seat theater is located just across the street from where her opponent’s name graces a dormitory building at the University of Tampa. But David Straz didn’t show for Monday’s encounter before a sparse crowd. His campaign cited an unavoidable conflict.
“It’s the first conversation,” quipped Castor before the event began. “It’s not a debate.” Asked if it bothered her that Straz didn’t show, Castor said: “No, not at all. I just appreciate the opportunity to share my vision for the city and discuss the issues that are important to our community.”
Straz missed about one-third of the 30 forums held before the March 5 primary. His campaign cited conflicts with charitable work as the most common reason.
He has yet to commit to any of the six tentatively planned debates — three of them televised — before the April 23 runoff.
It's usually the front runner in a political race that avoids debates. Call it the run-out-the-clock strategy. But except for a media availability last week that lasted 7½ minutes, Straz’s campaign has been on radio silence since he finished a distant second to Castor in the primary.
Campaign spokesman Jarrod Holbrook didn't go into detail about why Straz didn't show up for Monday's forum, which was organized by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
It was an "unavoidable conflict," Holbrook texted Monday.
Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of political science at USF St. Petersburg, says Straz doesn't have much of a choice — he has to get in front of voters to have any chance of catching Castor.
"He’s giving up the greatest opportunity he has to make up ground. I can’t see what the justification would be of such an approach," Paulson said. "It's a non-conventional campaign for an unconventional person but sometimes non-conventional becomes weird. That's what he has to avoid, being labeled as the 'strange' or 'weird' candidate."
The Straz campaign didn't respond to a request for comment about his strategy for the race.
Topher Morrison, a mayoral candidate who finished last in the primary but attended every forum, has trained speakers professionally in his career. He said it's obvious from watching Straz that debates aren't in his comfort zone.
"That’s not his strong suit," Morrison said on a WFLA Sunday political show. "He knows that so he's going to be strategic and miss as many as he can without sacrificing his campaign."
Some of the biggest stumbles for Straz have come during forums where the candidates often have to respond on the fly to questions from moderators or the audience.
When asked by independent investigative journalist Mike Deeson at a February forum about Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s influence in Tampa, Straz said Vinik's sway should be investigated. His campaign had to qualify the off-the-cuff remark several times, including to Vinik personally.
At a January forum, Straz said the $1 billion city budget "ought" to be cut by 10 percent, a pledge he later backed away from, saying he'd wait for a citywide audit to determine what "fluff and waste" to trim.
During several other forums, Straz mentioned "graft and corruption" in city government, which he has said is run by a "good old boy network" and a "cabal." But he hasn't provided specifics to back up those charges.
Still, Paulson said, even if there's a risk of further missteps, Straz has to step back into the public spotlight and not rely solely on his $426 million fortune to bombard mailboxes, computer screens and television sets with a scripted message.
"That’s the best opportunity to make up ground even if you’re not as adept as your opponent in that style. The whole purpose has to be for Straz to say to voters: 'Give me another look. This is why you should select me instead of Jane Castor,’ " Paulson said.