UPDATE: Following news of David Straz’s refusal to participate in a debate closed off to some candidates, Bay News 9 has decided to allow all Tampa mayoral candidates to participate in the televised debate next month regardless of how much money they’ve raised.
“We have decided to open the Spectrum Bay News 9 Tampa Mayoral debate to all ballot-qualified candidates, and remove our fundraising threshold criteria. Our network’s mission is to provide viewers with the information that will help them be better informed about their community and have extended the invitation to all qualified candidates to participate in the debate,” a Charter spokesperson confirmed.
Bay News 9 will not be including some of Tampa’s mayoral candidates in its televised debate Jan. 9 at Hillsborough County Community College’s Ybor City campus.
The network is excluding candidates who have raised less than $100,000 in their campaigns, according to some of the excluded candidates.
That leaves out Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez, small business consultant Topher Morrison and community activist LaVaughn King. A fourth filed candidate, Michael Anthony Hazard, has not participated in any campaign activities and is also not included.
Suarez has raised just under $51,000 and Morrison $59,000. King hasn’t raised anything. Those totals do not include money raised into candidates’ affiliated political committees. If Suarez’s City Wise Florida committee’s contributions had been included he would exceed the $100,000 threshold.
Now, philanthropist David Straz is refusing to participate in the debate unless all candidates are invited.
“It should not be about who raised the most money to get a debate pass,” Straz said in a statement. “Some of the long-term inequities in Tampa are caused by excluding certain neighborhoods, voices and communities because of money. That’s wrong and it will come to a screeching halt when I become mayor.”
Suarez said he’s working with Bay News 9 to try to be included in the debate, but doesn’t know if his efforts will be successful. He declined to comment further because he said there’s not much on which to comment when the issue is still open for debate.
Morrison, meanwhile, is furious. In a Facebook video he called Bay News 9’s decision to “arbitrarily” set a campaign finance minimum for participation in the debate “disgusting.”
“As the underdog, I will tell you right now, when you back an underdog in a corner they’re going to fight back,” Morrison said.
He also lamented that by the station’s own standards, Straz should also be disqualified. While Straz has posted more than $1.5 million in campaign funds, most of that has been from his own personal loans to the campaign, not through voter contributions.
Florida Politics reached out to all of the invited candidates asking if they would follow Straz’s lead and refuse to participate if the station did not include all of the filed candidates.
Tampa attorney Ed Turanchik said leaving out less competitive candidates in televised debates is not uncommon among media outlets and said he would be participating.
He speculated that Straz’s announcement might have been an attempt to remove himself from the debate. The Tampa performing art center’s namesake did not participate in the first televised debate earlier this year.
“This could be a tactic by David so he can mask his inexperience and perhaps get out of a televised debate,” Turanchik said.
But Straz said his decision is based merely on principle. He referenced his resignation as Chairman of the Board of Tampa General Hospital after board members voted to begin paying themselves for service that had historically been given as volunteers.
“I felt very strongly that our mission to provide health care services to the neediest Tampa families precluded paying members of the board,” Straz said.
Former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said she would still attend, but urged Bay News 9 to reconsider.
“This race is about the people of Tampa and ensuring they are as informed as possible when choosing the next mayor to lead this great city. That means that every candidate deserves a voice at all debates, forums, roundtables or public arenas,” Castor said. “We cannot have a comprehensive discussion without all candidates participation. While I look for”ward to this debate, Spectrum Bay New 9 should make the appropriate accommodations to have every candidates voice heard.
Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen said he has participated in 12-14 public forums so far and “has said ‘yes’ to everyone.”
“I am going to participate in everything I get invited to,” Cohen said. “Whether it’s just me, some of the candidates or all of the candidates I’ll be there.”
Bay News 9 did not respond to a request for comment.