Police Chief Tony Holloway has become an issue in the St. Petersburg mayoral campaign, as Rick Kriseman has been on the offensive about public safety, especially with crime down from the era of past mayor and present candidate Rick Baker.
The two squared off Wednesday night during an hour-long debate sponsored by the Council on Neighborhood Associations and moderated by Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam C. Smith at the Sunshine Center.
Kriseman has boasted about his selection of Holloway, a former Clearwater Police Chief, and said that unlike his opponent, he was dedicated to bringing him back. The crime rate is down from the Baker days, but it is in most cities compared to a decade ago.
Baker has been ambiguous about Holloway, but said he didn’t appreciate Kriseman’s references that he wouldn’t keep Holloway around.
Instead, he said that he has objected to the fact that Holloway doesn’t live in St. Petersburg, and emphasized that has been his only criticism of the chief.
“I’ve met with Chief Holloway. I like him. I see no reason why there’s an impediment towards being able to work with him,” Baker said. “The Mayor keeps on implying that I’m going to get rid of Chief Holloway. What I’ve said is, I’m not going to make any decisions on any staff … until I’m mayor.”
But Baker said if he were to win and chose to retain Holloway, he’d have to change some of his policies, such as eliminating the Street Crimes Unit and Auto Theft Unit — changes that Kriseman said that Holloway made.
After Baker announced he would challenge Kriseman’s re-election, he launched an aggressive campaign that kept the pressure on the incumbent throughout the primary. Polls showed Baker might have been able to win the mayoral contest outright.
That didn’t happen and since then the race has de-intensified. Recent public polling shows the race as tight as it was on primary election night, when the two candidates finished in virtual tie (Kriseman won 70 more votes).
The candidates opened up by offering bromides about their love and appreciation for the neighborhoods before reiterating familiar criticisms that have played out over the past four months, going back to the their first debate in late June.
The sharpest divisions came on the issue of spending, with Baker claiming that Kriseman has hired “close to 200” more staffers than he did. Kriseman dismissed the criticism, citing a PolitiFact article that rebuked the notion that he has spent excessively on high salaried employees.
Baker disputed that there was any such article. In fact, the Tampa Bay Times published a PolitFact article on the issue, but it was ambiguous, claiming who had the definitive word on the matter (the story did report that when it came to highly-paid employees, at his peak Baker had 95 such employees, while Kriseman had 79).
With just 20 days before Election Night, there’s very little territory that the two men haven’t discussed at length over the past four months, but some of the questions presented from the members of the Council of Neighborhood Associations were somewhat novel.
Many were not. Baker promised again that if is elected, he would get a new grocery store built in Midtown.
“I don’t agree with the concept by the mayor and his staff who have said that the people in Midtown can’t afford a neighborhood grocery store,” he said. “I believe that in Midtown we can handle a grocery store.”
Kriseman said that his staff was looking at “different models,” such as grocery stores with smaller footprints than traditional stores, as well as co-ops.
On the issue of mandatory curbside recycling, Baker defended the fact that didn’t go that far during his tenure as mayor.. He called the costs for it a regressive tax on those residents who can least afford to pay it. Kriseman followed up by saying that he’d like to consider the idea of composting.
“A lot of communities around the country are doing composting,” he said. “I think it’s something that we also ought to be taking a look at in the city.”
The age old campaign issues of sewage and sea level rise were again revisited. Baker said that he does believe that man has a role in climate change, and said he resented the “spin” that he’s a climate denier. “Sometimes spin can get to the point where it’s actually a lie,” he said.
The discussion allowed Kriseman to associate the former mayor with Sarah Palin and Rick Scott. Scott’s PAC has contributed to Baker’s campaign.
“Sometimes I think Rick Kriseman wishes I was running for governor or president,” Baker said, clearly annoyed. “He needs to start addressing the issues in the city of St. Petersburg.”
Baker bashed Kriseman for allowing the Tampa Bay Rays to negotiate talks with officials in Hillsborough County about a possible new location for a stadium. He said it looked obvious that the Rays would soon announce a site in Ybor City, and he said that Kriseman would have to own that if the team does relocate.
Kriseman dismissively said that Baker hadn’t been reading the papers, or else he would have read a report that the Ybor location is now out, with the team possibly looking in the Westshore area.
And he boasted that he was able to get the Rays to drop the provision in their original contract with the city if they move on getting 50 percent of the development rights to a refurbished Tropicana Field site.
“They only get to keep it if they stay in St. Pete, which is a pretty big carrot, for them when they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to finance their stadium,” Kriseman said.
Voting by mail continues daily. Election Day is Nov. 7.