Bill Foster fires back in St. Pete mayoral campaign debut

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The forum was co-sponsored by the Weekly Challenger, the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP and Bay Tech Label, and thus the campaigns had to be aware that there would be a fair share of questions related to the black community. The candidates were all asked what their individual contributions had been for people of color, disadvantaged businesses and underserved constituents. Foster began on the defensive, saying "Hindsight's 20/20. Unless you're in the mayor's office making those decisions, it's really easy to criticize," before going on to say what his administration has done in the South St. Pete area on a number of fronts.

Kriseman responded by showing his allegiance to former mayor Rick Baker in Midtown, before segueing into his work in Tallahassee, where "it was an honor to work with Representative (Darryl) Rouson as we fought the good fight there."

Ford mentioned her bona fides as a neighborhood activist and said she was proudest of her nomination of Ernest Williams to be the first black chairman of the City Council, as well as nominating Renee Flowers for that same position. She then said that she has been working on issues of "voter suppression" over the past decade.

The candidates were asked by one questioner about marijuana prohibition. The citizen claimed it was racist in its inception and its enforcement, with a 5 to 1 black-to-white arrest ratio.

Kriseman reflected that it would be better for youth to get a civil citation for such an infraction, saying that "once a child has a misdemeanor on their record, it makes it difficult for them to have a job, to have a future."

Ford said she had concerns about drug use, "but I know well that marijuana works for folks who have cancer. It has beneficial properties. I don't like to see kids high. I don't want to give the impression that it's okay. We do know the consequences."

Foster said as far as any legalization of marijuana, there was nothing doing. "That's a deal killer."

We'll skip the Ray Tampa and Goliath Davis confrontations with Foster as reported in the dailies (though that will be part of our story in next week's issue), but there's no doubt that activist 'Momma Tee' Lassiter's seemed to be Bill Foster's secret weapon at the debate, as she challenged Kriseman and Ford about what had they ever done for the black community.

"I need to know what bill you passed? I never saw you move anything" she said in an accusatory fashion to Kriseman.

The former state representative then responded somewhat defensively that being part of the minority in Tallahassee made it difficult. "If you try to stand up for people, your bill will die," he explained.

But moments later Foster threw in a dig at Kriseman. Referencing Representative Darryl Rouson standing in the back, he said that that the state legislator "makes no excuses. He brings things to St. Pete."

(Ford's response to the question was that since 2000 she's been working with a group of lawyers state-wide on voting issues).

Foster also dismissed the suggestion that it was only because he was a vulnerable incumbent running for re-election that he signed a proclamation proclaiming June to be LGBT Pride Month in the city. He said that it was because for the first time he was asked (by this year's grand marshal, Susan McGrath) if he could support anything about the jobs, equality, economic development and celebration of life that the parade brings to St. Pete?

"I said I can celebrate all of it," Foster said he replied.

click to enlarge It begins: Bill Foster, Rick Kriseman & Kathleen Ford in their 1st mayoral debate - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
It begins: Bill Foster, Rick Kriseman & Kathleen Ford in their 1st mayoral debate
  • Chip Weiner
  • It begins: Bill Foster, Rick Kriseman & Kathleen Ford in their 1st mayoral debate

There was an air of anticipation Thursday night at Suncoast Hospice in St. Petersburg, as the first mayoral debate of the summer convened before an energized and engaged audience. Though there will be a plethora of campaign forums that will surely challenge the excitement factor through the dog days of August, the fact is that it was a big deal that Mayor Bill Foster and his two major opponents, former city councilwoman Kathleen Ford and former councilman and state representative Rick Kriseman, were finally meeting under one roof to discuss the issues with a part of the electorate.

"It's a real kick in the pants," Mayor Foster said as part of his response when asked what he'd do in his first 100 days in office if he's re-elected in November. "This is not an area where on the job training going to be the best move as we go forward and as we move out of this recession," he added in making the case for four more years.

Recent polls show Foster trailing his two challengers, as only two will survive past the August 27 primary. With less than nine weeks to go before that election, clarifying the differences between the candidates begins now.

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