First debate offers glimpse of likely themes in Tampa Council races

From Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's sweeping downtown development plan to thawing U.S. relations with Cuba to the possibility of baseball moving into the city, Tampa has kind of a lot going on right now.

Probably less prominent in the public psyche at the moment is the group of people who will be seeing the city through these evolutions, making decisions with a direct impact on how they're carried out: candidates for Tampa City Council.

The election is March 3, and only five council seats will be decided. Two other seats — Frank Reddick's Dist. 5 seat and Lisa Montelione's Dist. 7 seat — would have been up had challengers materialized. 

On Friday, one week after the candidate qualifying deadline passed, incumbents and challengers participated in their first candidate forums at a Tampa Tiger Bay Club meeting, where attendees asked them questions on a broad range of issues, some pressing, some not. 

As the candidates spoke, key differences emerged.

Take the citywide Dist. 1 race.

Dist. 1 incumbent Mike Suarez and his challenger, activist Susan Long, were each asked what the biggest challenge was in east Tampa, a predominantly low-income, African-American area.

Long could have used a coach for this one.

"The noise," she said, referring to loud "boom-boxes" and car stereos that violate noise ordinances, which she said are in turn not enforced.

Suarez, clearly a more seasoned public speaker and confident to speak on the fly, went a different route.

"What we need to do in east Tampa is find jobs, and economic development," Suarez said, adding that he'd like to create a community redevelopment area (CRA), which would funnel tax dollars raised there into projects to better the area.

Of course, baseball came up, too.

One member of the audience asked the Dist. 4 candidates — Jackie Toledo, Guido Maniscalco and Tommy Castellano — if they would consider the dog track at Sulphur Springs as a site for a baseball stadium if the Rays ever start looking in Tampa in earnest.*

"If it were a football stadium it would make sense to go there, because people tailgate at football games, they hang out for long periods of time," Maniscalco said. "But a baseball stadium deserves to be in downtown. I don't know exactly where because of the Vinink plan going in, but downtown is the area to take a look at for a baseball stadium."

Castellano agreed, saying downtown and even Harbour Island would not be logical choices, but Sulphur Springs would be "ideal," as would several other sites throughout the city.

Toledo agreed.

"I would absolutely consider the area, especially if it's going to revitalize the area and I think it definitely would," Toledo said. "Downtown is a great location for a baseball field, but...we have too much traffic in downtown already and there is a lot of activity going on downtown."

An attendee lobbed a question about renewable energy at those contending for the at-large Dist. 2 seat being vacated by termed-out Councilwoman Mary Mulhern.

“I'm all for that with green technologies, expanded recycling," said candidate Julie Jenkins. "I myself just got a hybrid.”

Candidate Joe Citro said he would like to see TECO put solar cells on every building and alternative fuels for city vehicles.

Charlie Miranda, a longtime City Councilman who is terming out of his seat and running for this one, said he'd be amenable; that there's "nothing wrong" with an energy-efficient car.

“Alternative fuels is something that's got to happen sooner or later, yet the price of oil is something that's down now,” Miranda said. “There's nothing wrong with buying a hybrid or electric car. These things are coming online more and more.”

*An early version of this post gave an incorrect district number and mistakenly referred to candidate Tommy Castellano as "Dan," which was, sadly, probably a result of the unconscious conflation of Castellano's name with that of Dan Castellaneta, an actor noted for providing the voice for Homer Simpson.

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