TAMPA — The day before a televised debate, six of the seven candidates vying to become the next mayor showed up at Tuesday evening's Ybor City forum.
The only one missing was David Straz, who also missed the first forum back in October.
Former Plant City Mayor John Dicks attempted to participate as a stand-in for Straz, but organizers vetoed that idea.
In brief opening remarks, Dicks said "something came up" for Straz and that the campaign contacted him a few hours before Tuesday's debate and asked him to fill in for the retired banker and philanthropist.
Then, moderator, former Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, a supporter of candidate Ed Turanchik, told him he couldn't answer questions.
Straz has now missed two of four mayoral debates. His campaign did not return a request for an explanation from the Tampa Bay Times.
However, the six candidates who did show up answered questions about housing and architectural design for about 45 minutes in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Tampa chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
They all said new construction should be attractive as well as functional. Most stressed the need for more affordable housing in a city that's becoming increasingly pricey.
Once again, Turanchik, a former Hillsborough county commissioner, was on the receiving end of his rivals' jabs.
When he mentioned his unsuccessful efforts in the early 2000s to land the 2012 Olympics as having helped pave the way for Brightline's proposed $1.7 billion privately financed passenger rail line linking Tampa to Orlando, City Council member Harry Cohen pounced.
"I also won't tell you about projects that never happened," Cohen quipped about the Olympic bid.
And when Turanchik blamed city leaders who had "fumbled the ball for 20 years," on transportation fixes for the gridlocked city, former police chief Jane Castor took her shot.
"I disagree with Ed," Castor said. "I think we've had some great leaders here in Tampa."
Turanchik didn't fire back. Instead, he said had the decades of experience and know-how required to move the city forward.
"My job is to build a city ... we are so far behind," Turanchik said. "We haven't had the visionary leadership that knows how to go."
The often-technical forum did allow some candidates to offer glimpses into their personal lives. Responding to a questions about historic preservation, Castor noted that she had restored three Seminole Heights homes.
"I can do it all except for electrical and plumbing," she said.
She noted that her first home had gained more than $200,000 in value since she bought it, and pledged that if elected, she'll make affordable housing a priority.
Community activist LaVaughn King also stressed affordable housing, pointing out that his East Tampa neighborhood had received paltry amounts of funding for cheaper housing. He also said his grandmother had lost her home when Interstate 4 was expanded.
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"It's definitely been neglected by the current administration," King said of term-limited Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who leaves office on May 1. The election is March 5, with the top two vote-getters advancing to an April 23 runoff if no one gains more than 50 percent of the vote.
Other candidates returned to familiar campaign themes. Branding consultant Topher Morrison spoke of the need for the city to capture momentum to raise its profile.
City Council member Mike Suarez promised to be a mayor that would be visible in all 70-plus neighborhoods as he said he has done during his eight years on council.
The same field — including Straz, who committed via Twitter in December — will gather at Hillsborough Community College's Ybor City campus for the fifth debate, which will be televised and sponsored by Spectrum Bay News 9 and moderated by anchor Holly Gregory.
Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8459 . Follow @Charlie Frago.