TAMPA—For about 22 minutes, Jane Castor and David Straz sat side-by-side on television for the first time since the race to become Tampa's next mayor narrowed to them a month ago.
Most of the WEDU-Ch. 3 debate, moderated by Florida This Week host Rob Lorei, covered familiar ground on issues such as relieving Tampa's traffic congestion, protecting the city against rising seas, preparing for hurricanes and, yes, potholes.
TAMPA BAY TIMES: Complete Guide to the 2019 Tampa Mayor's Race
Then Lorei gave the candidates an opportunity to ask each other one question.
Castor asked Straz what his plans and ideas are for being mayor, saying he's only focused on negative campaigning since the March 5 election.
In response, the 76-year-old retired banker didn't outline a vision or explain his ideas. Instead, he chose to defend his campaign strategy.
"I don't agree at all that it's negative campaigning," he said. "What I'm doing is bringing out the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as I have done all my life in my business career. I want to truth to be known by the citizens of Tampa.
"Win, lose or draw, this needs to be out on the table. The people need to know the problems and the deficiencies that exist."
Straz then asked Castor, who served 31 years with the Tampa Police Department before retiring in 2015 as chief and becoming a law enforcement consultant, if she had ever created any "non-governmental jobs."
"None," replied Castor, 59.
"Thank you," Straz said.
Earlier in the debate, Straz and Castor sparred over his claim that she manipulated crime statistics during her tenure as a high-ranking police commander. The Straz campaign has run TV ads repeating that claim. Castor has responded with her own ad saying Straz is lying.
Lorei asked Straz: What is your evidence?
"I have people that have given testimony to that fact," Straz said, repeating his claim that Castor's department had "bundled" several crimes into one to lower the crime rate. He said a "false sense of security is being portrayed when it's not there."
However, Straz did back off an earlier claim that homicides had risen by 70 percent during Castor's time as chief from 2009-15. In fact, the homicide rate remained steady. "The 70 percent number doesn't stand," he said.
Castor said her department's crime numbers have been audited by several agencies. She said Straz's attacks were baseless.
"Mr. Straz has no idea what he's talking about," she said. "Those statistics are correct. They've been audited by the FBI, OPPAGA (the legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability) and Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
"We take that very seriously, the reporting of our crime stats. And to base his evidence on a disgruntled police employee and his own expert witness that admitted he never even looked at the information — he based his decision on intuition— is reckless, frankly."
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After the debate, the candidates met individually with the media. Straz repeated his latest line of attack, that Castor has never created private sector jobs.
"I'm a job creator," Straz said. "I know what I'm doing. My opponent has one year experience repeated 31 times."
When a Tampa Bay Times reporter twice asked if he saw any value in public-sector experience, Straz declined to answer each time. Then his spokesman Jarrod Holbrook escorted the candidate out of the studio.
In her meeting with the press, Castor urged voters not to forget to vote in the April 23 election. Castor nearly won outright five weeks ago, tripling Straz's vote.
"We're reminding people, knocking on doors just trying to get them out to vote," she said, adding she was alarmed that less than 21 percent of city voters turned out for the March 5 election. "The mayor and the City Council have a day-to-day effect on your life."
What would Castor and Straz have asked each other if they had another chance to quiz their opponent?
Straz passed on that question, too.
"I don't know," he said.
Castor was ready with a quip.
"Could you answer the first question that I asked?"
The debate will air at 8:30 p.m. Friday and again at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday. It will also be available on the public television station's website: wedu.org.
Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.