TAMPA — As the race to replace term-limited and popular Mayor Bob Buckhorn gathers speed, the themes dominating the campaign have become clear: unclogging the city's gridlocked streets and finding a way to keep the state's third-largest city affordable.
At Wednesday evening's forum at the restored Rialto Theatre, seven mayoral candidates took turns offering their solutions for those problems, from promising to create a less car-dependent city to creating incentives for developers to build affordable housing for the city's workers.
And unlike previous forums in recent days, sparring was replaced by policy discussions.
It was occasionally wonky, but never nasty.
The Tampa Downtown Partnership hosted the seventh forum, and most of the questions during the 90-minute event focused on downtown concerns. But the candidates were determined to widen the scope. East and West Tampa were praised and promised more attention. A booming downtown was celebrated, but rarely without a nod to needed development elsewhere.
Still, candidates displayed their downtown cred. Small businessman Topher Morrison said he hasn't owned a car in nine years and lives in the high-rise Element apartment tower downtown. City Council member Harry Cohen mentioned his father's ownership of a drapery business on Franklin Street. Former county commissioner Ed Turanchik took credit for getting a hockey arena built in Channelside. And retired banker and philanthropist David Straz pointed out that his name adorns the city's downtown performing arts center and a building at the University of Tampa.
It was Straz who also repeatedly said the urban core's prosperity needs to spread to the city's more hardscrabble neighborhoods, saying downtown should be "sharing the prosperity with our neighbors."
"They have been seriously neglected in the last few years," Straz said.
In fact, city budget data shows investment in neighborhoods has grown under Buckhorn from $12.4 million in his first budget as mayor in 2011-12 to as high as $34 million two years ago (excluding the $35.5 million cost of renovating Julian B. Lane Park.) The current budget has $15.9 million allocated for neighborhood projects.
It wasn't just Straz who said the city's focus should turn outside a celebrated downtown that has seen national recognition bestowed on the Riverwalk, the Armature Works and other recent big-ticket development.
City Council member Mike Suarez said his priority would be to bring "equity and diversity" to the mayor's office.
Cohen, who qualified late Wednesday, said neighborhood parks need more attention. And Morrison pledged to live for a year in East Tampa if elected.
Wednesday also marked Dick Greco Jr.'s first public appearance as a mayoral candidate. The retired Hillsborough judge didn't dwell on his famous father, former Mayor Dick Greco. Instead, he focused on introducing himself to voters as a compassionate judge who helped the homeless in his courtroom before retiring in 2017.
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So why did he join the already crowded mayoral race as the ninth candidate just days before the deadline to run in the March 5 election?
"For me it was the right thing to do," the younger Greco said. "It is never, ever, for any of us, too late to do the right thing."
Candidates LaVaughn King and Michael Hazard did not attend Wednesday's forum.
Most of the candidates stuck to familiar talking points about the city's transportation and affordable housing challenges.
Turanchik, who voted against the one-cent transit tax approved by voters in November, said he hadn't spoken against the proposal before the vote. In fact, he had been critical of the proposal at an early mayoral forum in October.
He didn't miss an opportunity to tell the large crowd about his transportation plan, which would use trams, hybrid diesel trains and more buses to ferry residents quickly around the city.
"It's time to go," Turanchik said. "You need a mayor who knows how to go."
Former police chief Jane Castor reminded the crowd of her record reducing crime. She also said she would focus on fixing streets first, saying she knew it "was not real glamorous."
She also responded to a question about the lack of retail in downtown as a problem that would be solved by bringing in housing and jobs.
"The retail will follow," she said.
Suarez, speaking about the mayor's role in transit policy, suggested why the race is so competitive: Tampa's next mayor has a big microphone.
"The mayor of Tampa is the single-most important political position in the region," he said.
Contact Charlie Frago at email@example.com or (727)893-8459 . Follow@CharlieFrago.