TAMPA — Former police chief Jane Castor has led the mayor's race in the early polling and skated through early forums without much static from her opponents. That all changed in Wednesday night's televised debate on Spectrum Bay News 9 when the presumed frontrunner came under fire.
Her rivals focused on the disproportionate ticketing of black bicyclists while she ran the Tampa Police Department from 2009 to 2015.
A 2015 Tampa Bay Times investigation found that over a three-year span, eight out of 10 bicyclists ticketed by Tampa police were black. It's a practice the black community equated to stop-and-frisk.
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It was an expected line of attack during the crowded mayoral race, one that former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik launched in a backhanded manner by praising current Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan.
"I think the chief has done a good job," Turanchik said. "I think he's restored the credibility that was damaged by previous administrations."
Then, he coyly demurred: "I'm not naming names."
Judging by the audience's laughter, it was apparent he was talking about Castor, who last year apologized for that policy and called it a "mistake" last year before declaring her candidacy for mayor (Dugan was also one of her deputy chiefs.)
Castor apologized again on Wednesday, admitted it was a wrongheaded practice. But she defended her department from charges of racial bias and said crime was reduced greatly on her watch.
"The tickets were a mistake," she said. "I take full responsibility for that policy and I continue to take responsibility."
Her opponents weren't done, though. City Council member Mike Suarez said the practice had hurt the city's image in the black community. Retired banker and philanthropist David Straz didn't mince words, either.
"The mayor is chief law enforcement officer," he said. "When I'm mayor, there will be no racial profiling."
Longshot candidates Topher Morrison and LaVaughn King also joined in. King told the crowd that he'd been pulled over three times during Castor's tenure as chief, which he deemed a result of racial bias by her officers.
Castor pushed back, saying her officers were cleared of racial profiling by a Department of Justice probe. She tried to refocus attention on her crime reduction efforts.
"People forget about the victims of crime," she said.
The 90-minute debate held at Hillsborough Community College's Ybor City campus covered a lot of ground, including the scuttled (or perhaps just stalled) Tampa Bay Rays' stadium deal, the city's lack of affordable housing and its transit woes.
This was the fifth candidate forum, one defined by a no-holds-barred tone from most of the candidates. In front of what may be the only televised audience before the March 5 election, civility was chucked in favor of open combat.
City Council member Harry Cohen, who debuted his campaign in June with a promise of civility, was particularly eager to mix it up.
He called Straz's plan for affordable housing "ridiculous," saying private enterprise wasn't the sole solution. Then he went after Turanchik, throwing his hands up in apparent exasperation when Turanchik asked to weigh in again on the defunct Rays' deal.
Then Cohen turned to Turanchik once again and went in for the jugular: "What he describes, seriously, all night, is what I call Turanchinomics: he dreams, you pay, nothing happens."
Cohen wasn't alone. Morrison and Suarez got into a heated argument over Tampa's identity. When Morrison said the city needs to be rebranded, Suarez said longtime Tampa residents know what their city is. Then they argued over whether long-shuttered cigar factories' rooftops were designed to see incoming ships or not.
"It's not about the gondolas," Suarez quipped, mocking Morrison's plan to use gondola lifts as a transit option and branding tool.
Near the end of the debate, moderator and Bay News 9 anchor Holly Gregory asked the candidates who they would vote for if they weren't in the race.
King said that, after having to witness all that bickering, that he wouldn't vote for any of them:
"It seems rather immature."
Times correspondent Katelyn Massarelli contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8459 .Follow@CharlieFrago.