TAMPA—Call it the dog days of the Tampa mayor’s race.
Last week, with the election still about a month away, most of the seven candidates hoping to replace term-limited Mayor Bob Buckhorn trekked across the city to five forums.
By Thursday night in Westshore Palms, the fatigue was evident. Former police chief Jane Castor and former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik took off their glasses and rubbed their eyes while their opponents, small-businessman Topher Morrison, City Council member Mike Suarez and retired judge Dick Greco Jr., answered questions. The other two candidates, City Council member Harry Cohen and retired banker and philanthropist David Straz, didn’t attend.
Cohen said he had a previously scheduled out-of-town fundraiser. Straz, who also missed a forum in Ybor City Friday, declined to specify why he has missed four forums out of nearly 20 so far.
“We are not releasing any details of David Straz’s schedule to the Tampa Bay Times. We’re running a campaign and he’s had unavoidable conflicts,” said Straz spokesman Jarrod Holbrook.
While the pace might be wearing, the topics of the latest forums have veered away from the heavy and frequently wonky emphasis on transportation and affordable housing in earlier events.
Tuesday evening, at Blake High School, the candidates appeared giddy to talk about the importance of arts and culture to the city in a forum sponsored by the Gobioff Foundation. They traded anecdotes about their artistic ineptitude and love of the arts. They also praised the arts community as an economic driver and essential piece of attracting talent to Florida’s third-largest city.
Morrison pledged to bring the Princess Ulele sculpture back to the Riverwalk if elected. Cohen said the Straz Center’s debut of the “Book of Mormon” in November 2013 signaled the city’s comeback from the Great Recession. Greco spokes of his love of the Riverwalk. Suarez said reading Shakespeare in high school changed his life.
But it wasn’t all paeans. Straz criticized Buckhorn, saying the popular two-term mayor had ignored the arts.
“The biggest thing is in the mayor’s office, we lack right now strong support for the arts coming from the head guy,” Straz said.
Cohen and Castor advocated for a greater city role in supporting artistic space. Cohen said vacant downtown office space should be given over to pop-up galleries to catch the bewildered cruise ship tourists he sees wandering past City Hall. Castor repeated her call for extending the streetcar line to her neighborhood of Seminole Heights, saying the Florida Avenue car lots could be repurposed into galleries
Earlier that day, at a forum hosted by the Tampa Bay Business Journal in Lincoln Gardens, tempers frayed after Turanchik critcized the other candidates’ ideas. Morrison blasted back.
“It’s not that there’s not good ideas, Ed,” Morrison said. “It’s just that it’s not any good unless it comes out of your mouth.”
Two days later, the smallest forum crowd so far witnessed Castor and Suarez joust over what city government can do to aid neighborhoods against unwanted development. Castor said neighborhoods need to get better organized and let the City Council, which rules on zoning matters, know they don’t want the project.
“When they see the number of people that disagree with it, then it’s not going to happen,” Castor said.
Suarez pounced. He said council members have to follow the city’s comprehensive plan and the law.
“That’s really not the way it works. You have to follow the law. If you don’t, guess what? You get sued,” Suarez said. “Guess who pays? You do.”
Suarez and Castor continued their disagreement as they sat behind the next speaker, Greco, who turned and said: “Children, children. Play nice.”
On Friday, before another small crowd at The Bricks restaurant in Ybor, all the candidates except Straz (who wasn’t there) said they opposed widening Interstate 275, the focus of a controversial Florida Department of Transporation plan known as “TBX.” They also pledged to restore or rebuild the historic Jackson House, on Zack Street just east of downtown, a mainstay of the city’s black community that housed Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and other luminaries during segregation.
The Jackson House came up again on Saturday at a well-attended forum in North Tampa hosted by the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay. In a spirited round where candidates asked questions of another candidate of their choice, Straz was buttonholed by Castor, Suarez and Morrison.
Morrison asked Straz if he would save the Jackson House if he was mayor. Straz said he would. Morrison then said asked if the candidate worth more than $400 million would pay to save it if he lost.
“I’ll match whatever you put in,” Straz quipped to the delight of an audience of several hundred. Morrison’s financial disclosure show him to be the least wealthy of the candidates with a net worth of just over $75,000.
Straz’s disclosure lists his net worth at $426 million. He’s already spent more than any other candidate in Tampa mayoral history, dropping more than $1.6 million through the end of January and running far more television ads than the other candidates.
The election is March 5. If no candidate captures more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters proceed to an April 23 runoff.
Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or . Follow @CharlieFrago.