Candidates to replace Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn next year. Six of eight candidates running to succeed the two-term mayor faced off in the election’s first debate Wednesday night at Hillsborough Community College. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce hosted the debate and Politifact Executive Director Aaron Shockman moderated.
Attendees included former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, Tampa City Council members Harry Cohen and Mike Suarez, former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, business consultant Topher Morrison and community activist LaVaughn King.
Not in attendance were Michael Anthony Hazard and David Straz.
The little over one-hour debate touched on several key issues facing Tampa in the coming years including a looming budget deficit and how to manage the budget shortfall, but here are five take-aways that didn’t include a degree in accounting.
Transportation is the top issue – No matter what the question was, transportation somehow managed to creep into the answer.
All six candidates fundamentally agreed that transportation in Hillsborough County and Tampa is bad and getting worse and they all acknowledged the transportation system is woefully under-funded.
Most of the candidates support the All for Transportation referendum before voters this November that would raise about $280 million a year – $9 billion over 30 years – to fund both transportation and transit enhancements.
Turanchik was the lone dissent on that referendum. He said he might vote for it, but has serious concerns. He’s worried future leadership in Tampa and Hillsborough County could taint the referendum’s intent. Under the referendum, no specific projects are proposed. Rather, it creates a framework for how to spend the money and lets individual municipalities and the county decide how to use the funds. It guarantees 55 percent for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, but most of the rest is fair game.
“When there is a big pot of money and it’s not earmarked, special interests come in and gobble it up,” Turanchik said.
Morrison also expressed some concern over the plan noting there are solutions that might not necessarily require raising taxes, but he said it’s a good start and plans to vote in favor of it.
King said transportation is fundamental in supporting his No. 1 priority, the arts. He said if the city boosts its arts community it could be a citywide revenue generator that could fund transportation over the long haul.
The rest of the candidates support All for Transportation even if acknowledging the plan wasn’t perfect because, as they all surmised – no plan is.
A new Rays stadium was a close second – Where transportation dominated candidates’ talking points, a new Major League Baseball stadium in Ybor City wasn’t far behind. There was broad consensus on one thing – taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook for paying for it.
But candidates offered a range of opinions on whether or not to build it and, if so, how to pay for it. The most innovative solution came from Morrison who managed to weave transportation into his answer.
“Hyperloop. It can get [to and from] Orlando in ten minutes. How many think that sounds a little more attractive [than an hour train ride,]” Morrison said.
He was referencing the private company All Aboard Florida’s plans to build a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando along Interstate 4. That trip would take about an hour. Hyperloop is a magnetic levitation tube that could make the trip in ten minutes by traveling at the speed of sound.
Morrison said that line could terminate at a new baseball stadium, turning it into a transportation hub that could then draw down state and federal transportation funding. Morrison admitted he wasn’t sure if that was an option, but said “it’s worth looking into.”
There’s another catch to Morrison’s stadium funding plan – Hyperloop might be way too far off to consider as a solution for today’s needs. Companies are testing the technology in Europe and in the Western U.S. and commercial routes are in the works, but there aren’t currently any proofs of concept to hedge any bets.
Castor said the Tampa Bay area “is too big to lose the Rays” and that the team simply won’t work in St. Petersburg.
“But the public is not going to pay for that stadium,” she said. “If the private dollars are in it than we’ll build the most palatial stadium the world has ever seen.”
Suarez and Turanchik both criticized the Tampa Bay Rays for lacking transparency in the stadium process.
“You don’t play poker with somebody you don’t what kind of hand they have,” Suarez said. “We need them to come forward and tell us how much money they’re going to put up.”
Turanchik gave one assurance.
“I know the difference between a bad deal and a good deal,” he said. “I’m careful with your money.”
No one candidate came away the “winner” – No one underperformed, but no one outperformed either. Each candidate displayed strengths that will likely be honed over the next several months of campaigning.
Castor’s experience as Tampa Police Chief shone in her answers. She was diplomatic and spoke with clarity and assertion. But she was also cautious. Many of her answers were vague and left broad room for interpretation.
Suarez and Morrison dominated the Buckhorn swagger game (the current mayor loves his swagger.) Suarez cracked jokes and drew laughter several times from the audience. His speaking style was conversational and relatable.
Morrison was similar, though a little less ‘grab a drink at the local bar’ conversational. He casually leaned on the table in front of him and showed careful consideration of his opponents ideas. He engaged with the audience by not just talking to them, but by talking with them.
That engagement showed. Even as the underdog, Morrison drew the most amount of applause.
Turanchik showed up with his own style of mayoral charm. He displayed confidence and used his experience as a Hillsborough County Commissioner and former mayoral candidate to show he has the policy chops necessary in an elected leader. But his confidence could come off to some as arrogance.
King asserted himself well into a race few even know he’s running. He came across as well-spoken and was particularly well-received when he spoke about under-represented parts of the city like West and East Tampa. But his campaign platform being so tightly wound around the arts seems too narrow and he often took issues mostly unrelated and used them to circle back to expanding arts and culture.
Meanwhile, Cohen did a good job of distancing himself from Harry Cohen the City Council member and Harry Cohen the Mayor. He was sharp on the issues and had well-thought out answers to anything thrown at him. And he wasn’t afraid to follow up with a little spunk, which brings us to the next take-away …
Harry Cohen nabbed the night’s best zinger – Cohen blasted Turanchik towards the end of the debate. Throughout the course of the evening Turanchik criticized the transportation referendum, opposed a 41-mile regional bus route between St. Pete and Wesley Chapel and spoke negatively about a new baseball stadium.
“I hear so much negativity up on this stage tonight,” Cohen lamented. “We gotta keep an open mind and we’ve got to keep ourselves open to new ideas and we have to embrace ideas that don’t just come from us. If the community has an interest in having a baseball stadium we should make it happen.”
Tampa has no brand identity, apparently – Bucking the traditional 1-2 minute introductory statements at the start of debates, Wednesday night’s debate instead opened with each candidate answering the question, what is Tampa’s brand identity?
Cue the crickets.
Turanchik said when he mentions Tampa to people who don’t live here their response is usually “that’s where Mons Venus is.”
“OK, but that’s not the brand we are thinking about,” he said.
Morrison agreed the knee jerk answer is cigars and strippers.
Each candidate did have a vision for what they want the city’s brand to be.
For Mike Suarez that’s diversity. For King, robust arts and culture. Turanchik – innovation.
“I don’t know what our brand is, but I can tell you this, people love living here,” Cohen said. “They love the relative affordability. They love the opportunities that exist in this growing and vibrant community.”
Castor said whatever the city is known for, it needs a strong leader to forge that path and to keep Tampa as a “big city with a small town feel.”