The St. Petersburg mayoral election moved to the Suncoast Tiger’s Den Wednesday, in an hour-long luncheon debate that seemed more starter than a main course.
Mayor Bill Foster traded a few jabs with rival Rick Kriseman in front of an audience of about 100 local business and political leaders, both using election-year pitches on how they would be the best person to carry St. Pete forward after November 5.
With the two virtually tied in the polls, neither candidate seemed to deliver a crushing blow on the other. Both made stock claims about how much they loved St. Petersburg. Foster leaned on his fiscally conservative credentials, while Kriseman said things need to change, or else. The audience ate dessert.
Foster began his eighth appearance in the Tiger’s Den by trumpeting his fiscal conservatism and blasting his opponent’s lack of management experience. He said his administration navigated the city through 2008’s Great Recession, making the point that it was a period where property values plummeted and left the city with less money to provide services.
Under his watch, the mayor said, property taxes dropped from “about $104 million” when he took office to around $70.1 million in 2102. It challenged him to create an environment for business growth.
“The administrative DNA has changed,” he said, but still he “postured the city” to be financially secure for the end of the recession. He boasted that the city is now at a point where it is economically sustainable for the “new normal.”
“If you re-elect me, you will need to hold on,” the incumbent said. “The brakes are coming off the economic train.”
Kriseman, a former state representative, worried about what would happen if the city did not change direction. He outlined a four-point plan to bring out the city’s “potential.” As a one-time City Council member, he said he will address issues like streamlining delivery of city services, creating jobs, collaborate with schools to improve education and increase neighborhood involvement.
“When Bill Foster and I were on the City Council, there were 120 neighborhood associations,” Kriseman said. “Now there are only 60.”
Calling the Port of St. Petersburg a “wasted opportunity,” Kriseman also suggested the city partner with the University of South Florida Marine Sciences department, making the port a hub for all research vessels in the Gulf of Mexico.
Foster vowed to lead a “nationwide search” for a new police chief to replace Chief Chuck Harmon, who retires in January. As part of the process, his goal will be to order two separate panels — one to examine the system itself, and another for recommendations by community members.
Both candidates said they would not rehire Goliath Davis, surprising on one in the room.
Kriseman was quick to respond that Foster’s Police Chief hiring plan did not include input from the City Council, which he believes speaks to the larger issue of the turbulent relationship he has with the eight-member board. One of them, City Council and Tiger Bay member Wengay Newton, addressed the mayor on the same point. Newton asked why is it that six of eight sitting City Council members have endorsed Kriseman. After saying he knew Newton since high school, Foster proceeded to tell him it was all about money.
“There are some members on City Council that have an insatiable appetite to spend your money,” Foster responded. “Sometimes I was the only one between them and your checkbook.”
“I’m going to be tight with your money,” he added.
The subject of relationships continued, with both candidates emphasizing the importance of the bond with Tallahassee. Kriesman said his experenices in the House gave him an understanding of the need to strengthen the link with the Legislature and the governor. Foster defended his recent endorsement from Gov. Rick Scott , but said he would work with anyone who is in the Capitol.
Foster respected Scott for having the “same budgetary issues” the mayor did when he came to office, and “having to make the hard choices.”
Kriseman drew some applause when he referred to the current governor as “the most unpopular in the United States,” who may not be governor much longer.
“You need to have a relationship,” Foster shot back. “I don’t care who it is. Rhetoric is different from governing.”