Former Mayor Rick Baker and incumbent Rick Kriseman took plenty of verbal shots at each other during the first debate of the 2017 St. Pete mayoral race.
Although seven mayoral candidates are on the ballot, only Baker and Kriseman could participate at the forum hosted by Midtown’s Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.
Kriseman began the evening by reciting the main theme of his campaign: A choice between whether St. Petersburg residents want to go forward, or look backward in a bid at nostalgia.
“This is a campaign about who this city wants to be, what kind of city we want to be,” Kriseman said.
Baker seemed to be almost jumping out of skin during the initial exchanges. His energy level was at a considerably higher level than Kriseman’s, even though Baker toned his intensity down as the evening wore on.
Because the debate took place in the economically challenged area of South St. Petersburg, both men focused on which had done more for the citizens in a community that continues to struggle. Unlike most elections, both candidates have extensive track records in the same job, so there was plenty for each to boast about — as well as to criticize when it came to their opponent.
Moderated by former 10 News anchor Tammie Fields, the debate took questions from audience members.
The first came from a man who asked about crime.
Flashing in one hand what he claimed were police reports, the audience member said since December, his vehicle had been broken into six times.
“The crime is outrageous; the drugs, and prostitutes, and everything — what are you planning on doing?” the man asked Kriseman.
The mayor’s response seemed flat-footed.
Instead of addressing concerns about security, the mayor went on about how proud he was for hiring Tony Holloway as the city’s police chief back in 2014. His response finished with the first of many verbal attacks over the course of the evening — that he had hired Holloway, a winning choice compared to Baker’s choice of Mack Vines, who was fired 74 days later after Vines used the term “orangutan” to describe the actions of a black man who had been arrested.
Baker seized on that missed opportunity, receiving thunderous cheers early on when the former mayor said he had fired Vines, pointing out that Kriseman had not answered the question.
Baker went on to chastise Kriseman for ending the street crime and auto theft units within the SPPD.
Later in the debate, Holloway came up indirectly when the candidates were questioned about their opinion of members of the St. Petersburg Police Department wearing body cameras.
As Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano noted last month, Holloway has made a variety of excuses about why the SPPD hadn’t purchased dashboard cameras for its 15 new police cars.
When the issue was raised, Kriseman repeated Holloway’s concerns about privacy, extolling the virtue of how a couple of rank-and-file patrol officers turned in a colleague using excessive force.
“There was no camera,” he said. “It didn’t take a camera for that to happen, that’s the kind of attitude that exists in this department.”
“If you have a camera, you have more information,” Baker responded, noting that the City Council recently rejected a pilot program for those dashboard cameras.
Although Baker was more aggressive attacking Kriseman on the campaign trail, Kriseman arrived with plenty of ammunition.
The two traded jabs about who was more responsible for struggling public schools in South St. Pete, frequently referred to as “failure factories.”
Kriseman said school performance went downhill when they were allowed to “resegregate,” which he said happened on Baker’s watch a decade ago.
One of the low moments of the Baker era was the infamous slashing of homeless tents by members of the St. Petersburg Police Department in 2007.
When asked to explain what went wrong, the former mayor called it “a mistake.”
“That’s what I said, and it shouldn’t have been done, because it put us in a bad light, and it made us feel like we were attacking the homeless,” Baker said, segueing into a positive discussion of how it led to the creation of Pinellas Hope, “where tonight 400 people will be sleeping, not on the street, but getting transition care, getting connected to their families, getting social services, that is social justice.”
Baker had nine years to put programs in place to help people convicted of a crime, Kriseman said.
“And for nine years those programs didn’t exist,” he added.
After Kriseman commented about how Baker did not stand by police officers during the slashing of tents, Baker got into a non-sequitur about Kriseman’s handling of last summer’s sewage crisis.
Former Police Chief Goliath Davis, who backed Kriseman over Bill Foster four years ago, is a strong Baker supporter this time around.
Throughout the night, Baker name-checked Davis several times, while the former police chief sat in the front row.
Kriseman — already accused by Baker of excessive political partisanship — somehow shoehorned George W. Bush’s name into the debate, invoking the former president by comparing a certain flight on an aircraft carrier in Iraq to Baker’s work in Midtown.
“The problem is that he did what George Bush did on that destroyer: Declared victory and said ‘mission accomplished,'” Kriseman said. “But the mission wasn’t accomplished. Because if people don’t have the resources, if they’re not making any money to go spend in that grocery store, to be able to spend at Sylvia’s, if they don’t have the money, those places aren’t going to survive.”
Kriseman continued by saying that was the reason both Sylvia’s Restaurant and Walmart closed in the Southside. “Because people didn’t have the money.”
Baker mocked Kriseman’s comment, noting that the mayor had just said people didn’t have the money to spend in those establishments, yet, “He buys a bus to bring people to Walmart to spend their money. Does that make sense?”
(The Kriseman administration announced last month that a mini-shuttle bus will transport residents from Tangerine Plaza to the Walmart Supercenter, at 201 34th St. N.)
Although the city’s sewage crisis was never mentioned in a question, Baker made sure to find a way to bring up the issue.
After disputing Kriseman’s charge that he blamed former Assistant Police Chief Melanie Bevan for slashing homeless tents, Baker said that contrasted with the way Kriseman dealt with the initial reports last September of more than a hundred million gallons of sewage had dropped into Tampa Bay waterways.
“What’s laughable is that he dumps 200 million gallons of sewage … and he blames everyone on the planet that he can possibly blame. He blamed global warming, and he fires a couple of them along the way. I couldn’t let that one go by.”
A straw poll conducted after the debate showed that the crowd was mostly pro-Baker, as he received 114 votes versus only 48 votes for Kriseman.
Because of the large crowd, there were reports of some late-arriving attendees who couldn’t enter the debate. But there will be plenty of other opportunities to see the candidates over the next two months.
Election Day is Tuesday, August 29.