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Tampa mayoral candidates take the stage at a previous debate centering on transportation. [File photo]

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Transportation, not-so-subtle digs, baseball dominate Tampa mayoral forum

Tampa’s mayoral candidates heated up the stage in what turned out to be a feisty televised debate hosted by Bay News 9 Wednesday night.

In stark contrast to previous campaign forums, there were moments where candidates were not afraid to throw shade at their opponents and dredge up past blemishes on professional resumes.

All seven candidates who have been campaigning participated in the debate: Former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, philanthropist David Straz, former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, Tampa City Council members Harry Cohen and Mike Suarez, small business consultant Topher Morrison and community activist LaVaughn King.

Michael Anthony Hazard, who has not been actively campaigning, did not attend. The forum was held in an auditorium at Hillsborough Community College’s Ybor City Campus. 

Candidates weighed in on issues affecting the city of Tampa, ranging from the now stalled Tampa Bay Rays stadium debacle and struggling transportation infrastructure, to public safety and affordable housing.

If you missed it, here are the top takeaways:

Transportation is a top issue

The first half-hour of the 90-minute debate centered almost exclusively on transportation and transit issues. There wasn’t a single candidate who didn’t list shoring up the city’s inadequate transit network and improving transportation gridlock and safety as a top priority.

Turanchik, who dubs himself the transportation guru of the bunch, released this week a comprehensive transit plan he bills as Tampa’s “Go Plan.” It consists of a network of transit routes that connect workplace hubs to the places people live into an overall citywide network.

Turanchik spared no time pitching his plan as the most robust and most common sense among his opponents.

“I’ve brought forth the plans that will work. We have been paralyzed by leadership that didn’t know how to make plans work,” Turanchik said, nothing that would not be the case if he were mayor. “We turned our backs on the obvious and affordable and turned it over to the absurd.”

Turanchik lamented the countless studies that have been conducted over the past decade that have yielded plans, but have done little to actually move the needle.

On that, Castor agreed.

“I’ve always said that we don’t lack for transportation solutions, what we lack is the funding,” Castor said.

She touted the recently approved 1 percent transportation sales surtax voters OK’d in November that will fund transit enhancements as well as transportation and safety improvements on roads.

Castor said she’d leverage those funds to “make good decisions” and said the best and most immediately available transit solution is to use existing CSX tracks to create passenger rail connecting South Tampa, downtown and the University of South Florida.

Suarez also emphasized the need for better mass transit, but declined to identify any specific mode.

“What we need is freedom. Transit is about freedom,” Suarez said, borrowing a talking point from transit expert Jarrett Walker who spoke Monday at a transit meeting. “You provide [transit] as much as you can; that’s what draws in the ridership.”

But he said the mode is less important and the next mayor should focus on what will work and not necessarily on whether it will be a bus, train or autonomous vehicle.

Meanwihle, Straz set his sights on sidewalks. Of the approximately $300 million a year raised through the new tax, 54 percent will go to the county and its cities to fund transportation improvements including safety and sidewalks.

“If you drive in the various neighborhoods, there are kids in ditches waiting for a bus, walking to school in ditches,” Straz said.

Cohen expanded on that, noting that, locally, kids who live within two miles of their school cannot take a school bus.

“My transportation plan specifically says that the most important thing that we can do is provide safety and safe passages to school,” Cohen said. “There are places where the sidewalks are not connected.”

King agreed.

Topher Morrison called on innovation and creative thinking. Among his many proposals touted on his campaign website, Morrison suggests the “Rooftop City” concept including aerial gondolas as transit.

He also called on greater competition for the Brightline/Virgin high speed rail proposal connecting Orlando and Tampa along Interstate-4 and said while he’s not “attached” to the idea, there should be more than one company vying for the public land to provide transit in that corridor.

Morrison also suggested creating more free transit.

The Rays deal isn’t dead (for most candidates) but it is on life support

Every candidate except for one, Turanchik, said there’s still hope for the Tampa Bay Rays in Tampa.

“We are too big an area to lose a franchise like that,” Castor said. “I want them here.”

She said there are plenty of creative ways to identify funding, but emphasized that she would not support public funding for a new stadium, a sentiment on which all of the candidates agreed.

Suarez blamed the Rays for failing to work with the city and county on a deal that would work. He argued federally allowable “opportunity zones,” which applies to the Ybor City site the county and team decided on for a new stadium, could yield enough private investment to make a deal work.

“They didn’t want to accept that because they didn’t want to put any more private money forward,” Suarez said.

Cohen sees hope for a revived deal and said the best time to re-start conversations is when the team is in a position to begin looking all over the country, not just in the region.

“We are still the largest television market that would not be served by Major League Baseball,” Cohen said.

Morrison again shifted the tone to the unconventional, suggesting the Rays stadium include a transit station for whatever winds up connecting Orlando and Tampa. That way, he said, the site could be classified for transit rather than as a sports facility and could attract federal dollars. Most consider that a long shot.

Straz said a deal isn’t dead, but that the team needs to invest serious dollars, not just a “pittance.”

Suarez fired back to the wealthy retired businessman, “I hear they’re looking for investors.”

Turanchik was the holdout.

“I don’t see how a deal could happen,” Turanchik said. “I think [St. Pete] brought the Rays there, I wish them well in proving the public financing to build a new stadium to keep them there.”

The gloves are coming off

The debate forums so far have been cordial. Candidates have challenged each other with alternative ideas on how to move the city forward in a variety of ways, but the political mudslinging Americans have become familiar with in recent years has been mostly absent.

That was not the case Wednesday.

Turanchik heaved criticism at Castor, without directly mentioning her, over the “biking while black” issue that plagued the latter years of her service as police chief.

A Tampa Bay Times report chronicled a series of citations given to mostly minority bike riders over various cycling infractions. Some of those citations led to arrests. Others left residents in low-income residents with confiscated bicycles of tickets they couldn’t pay that only further caused financial hardship.

Castor has since said the citations were a mistake, but that didn’t stop Turanchik from painting her as a failed police leader whose force carried out racist policies.

Asked whether he would retain existing police chief Brian Dugan, Turanchik answered that he liked the new police leader.

“He restored credibility that was damaged by a prior administration … and eliminated racial profiling,” Turanchik said.

Castor defended parts of the policy, noting that while she was head of the agency, crime dropped 70 percent and auto thefts dropped 90 percent. She said some policies worked and others didn’t. Handing out citations to bike riders who weren’t using agency-distributed lights to illuminate them at night, she said, was an example.

Later, Castor took her turn to jab Turanchik.

“He hasn’t accomplished anything except to crush everyone else’s plan,” Castor said of Turanchik’s decades-long work on transportation issues.

His response?

“You never had a mayor who would take it and make it real. I will make it real,” he said, referring to transportation plans. He added that Castor only changed her position once she was pressed on the issue, a claim she denies.

Cohen also had some feisty moments. When Straz suggested that the private sector should be charged with developing affordable housing, Cohen fired back that the idea was “ridiculous.”

Stacy White’s not going to get much love from whoever wins (except maybe Turanchik)

“White should be ashamed of himself,” Morrison said. He then promptly plopped Turanchik in the hot seat.

“How people campaign is how they govern,” he said, referring to Turanchik’s opposition to the All For Transportation tax White is currently challenging in court.

During the All For Transportation campaign Turanchik spoke negatively of it in several public forums and admitted he voted against it – the only candidate to do so.

Turanchik now says he supports the tax and will defend the will of the voters; and his recently released “Go Plan” is based on increased revenue from the new tax.

Still, other candidates expressed their frustration with the lawsuit.

Suarez said White’s lawsuit “will not win” and said “we need the money. Cohen added the “money is going to make a huge difference.”

Castor called it “a good plan with good oversight.”

All of the candidates welcomed the boost to the city’s budget.

If Trump is going to be a problem for Straz, it’ll happen from talking about affordable housing

In many ways, each candidate is similar. They all support better transportation, increased affordable housing and safer streets and their ideas on how to get there are not wildly different.

But on affordable housing, Straz stands out in a way that might not be a good thing for him in a city that rejected President Donald Trump at the polls in 2016.

Straz supported Trump, though he says he doesn’t anymore.

But his affordable housing pitch has an air of conservatism.

“Private enterprise can do it,” Straz said. “Government needs to come in and support some private banks … so that money can be available.”

“That’s a ridiculous answer,” Cohen immediately scoffed. “People are having difficult time living here. Federal housing dollars have not just been cut they have been eliminated. We must get more aggressive as a government.”

The election is March 5 with a runoff scheduled April 23 for the top two vote-getters if no single candidates earn more than half vote.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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