The relative comity between Tampa City Council District 7 candidates Luis Viera and Jim Davison exploded about fifteen minutes into their second debate on Wednesday night, when Viera criticized a Davison proposal that would keep the idea of New Tampa seceding from the rest of the city on the table when negotiating for more services to come to the district.
“That is a proposal that is adversarial, that is nonproductive and it is a nonstarter,” Viera said while speaking at the Babe Zaharias Golf course clubhouse in the Forest Hills section of North Tampa. “The next thing you know, we’re going to hear Jim say, ‘Hey, listen. I’m going to build a wall and make South Tampa pay for it.’ “
The line generated laughs from members of the audience, but Davison didn’t find it funny.
“Luis, that was uncalled for,” he responded. “You were trying to compare me to Donald Trump. And what the commissioner said beforehand that this was a nice, congenial campaign. You just destroyed that. I am not Donald Trump, and you are not Hillary Clinton. Alright? The bottom line is, if you want to get down to it, we can debate our character, right here, right now.”
The two candidates are running in the District 7 run-off election taking place next Tuesday, succeeding Lisa Montelione, who left her seat for an unsuccessful run for the Florida House.
The fiery exchange revolving around New Tampa seceding from the rest of the city was discussed at the candidates debate on Tuesday night at the New Tampa Regional Library. That’s where Davison said that while he wouldn’t push for the concept, he wouldn’t remove it either as a means of gaining leverage in calling for more services to come to New Tampa, an issue that both candidates agree doesn’t get the attention it deserves from City Hall.
Earlier on Wednesday, Davison said that it was only when New Tampa leaders like Joe Caetano began talking about secession in 2000 that the area received crucial transportation improvements. “We were not getting out fair share,” he said.”So as soon as we started talking about secession, and started forming and organizing ourselves to the New Tampa Transportation Task Force and the New Tampa Community Council, all of a sudden we started getting road improvements, money for recreation, money for pools, money for fields, all of those things. You never want to give away any leverage that you have in negotiations. And I’m not alienating anybody.”
But according to Gregory Wilson, Viera’s political consultant, Davison’s comments had alienated Mayor Bob Buckhorn. “You said you didn’t want to alienate the mayor, but you did, because yesterday, when the mayor wasn’t involved with this race at all, to this afternoon, he is now endorsing and supporting your opponent,” he said (Viera later said that a statement from Buckhorn announcing his endorsement would be released on Thursday). It should be noted that Viera and Buckhorn are Democrats, Davison is a Republican.
The debate was moderated by former Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who now leads the Tampa Innovation Alliance, an economic organization charged with lifting the economy in the USF area, which is part of the district.
Viera has called for a Community Redevelopment Agency for the University area, which he called a unique tool (there are seven such CRA’s throughout Tampa, where tax revenues stay within the district to pay for projects there).
As a strong advocate for mass transit in the community, Sharpe also kept the focus on transportation, which dominated parts of the forum. Although both opposed the Go Hillsborough proposed sales tax that never came before the voters last month after being voted down by the Board of County Commissioners, they differ on their opposition. Viera said there wasn’t enough transit in the plan, but Davison is much more energetic in his opposition, saying that County Administrator Mike Merrill, Buckhorn and other advocates were “lowballing” how much it would ultimately cost the taxpayers.
“If you’re going to vote on a half-cent sales tax, you have to know the truth,” Davison said. “That’s all I’m asking, that the City Council be honest with the people in this district.”
Davison says he does support light rail, but says that instead of a proposed transit hub in Westshore that would go Tampa International Airport, there would be a greater economic impact for a so-called “starter line” to have it run from downtown Tampa to USF.
On an aesthetic level, it wasn’t the smoothest debate to watch. The candidates weren’t given a time limit on their responses, and frequently Davison would go on for several minutes citing financial figures that at times seemed to make the audience grown numb.
The two were asked about the idea of allowing major cities like Tampa to have the power to tax their citizens on transportation issues. Florida law allows counties to do so, but not cities, a distinction that Viera described as “arbitrary.” Although plenty of Democrats ran for state legislature this year saying they would make that they would advocate for the change, there is no indication at all that the GOP-led Legislature will pass such a measure.
“I think the voters should have a choice in a democracy,” Viera said. Davison said he wasn’t opposed per se, but he said he simultaneously wanted “expenditure limitations stuck into your budget,” which he said is currently the case in Wisconsin.
Davison’s overriding thesis of his campaign is that the people of District 7 are “tired of being forgotten.”
“They don’t believe the people downtown on Jackson Street cares,” he said, referring to where City Hall is located in downtown Tampa. “A lot of the issues out in New Tampa could be remedied if they got back that they think is their fair share,” and referred to the fact that there is only one recreation center from the city in a district containing 65,000 people.
“People here in Forest Hills, I think they’re tired about having streets that aren’t lit, about having property crimes committed,” he said. “Some of their streets are flooding, and the only solution they got was a fee that isn’t going to directly solve the problems to begin with?”
“North Tampa is not getting its share of respect from the city of Tampa,” Viera agreed. He related an anecdote about speaking to a woman who lived on Busch Boulevard, who upon hearing that he lived in Hunter’s Green, said, “You shouldn’t have to live behind a gated community to have access to a park.”
Montelione, who has endorsed her fellow Democrat Viera in the race, commented during the Q&A portion of the debate with the audience that while transportation had dominated the discussion, the fact was that two-thirds of the city’s budget goes towards the police and fire departments, which “doesn’t leave a whole lot of money for a lot of other things.” Speaking directly to Davison, she also mentioned how more than 700 city jobs were cut during the Iorio administration to deal with the recession.
“I’m not sure how much more you can cut from city government without sacrificing city services,” she said pointedly.
Wednesday’s debate was the second and last one-on-one debate between Viera and Davison before voters go to the polls on Tuesday. Early voting starts today in the district.