Foster, Kriseman spar cordially at LGBT-sponsored mayoral debate

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Moderator Rob Lorei hit him with the Pride question right off the bat, asking if he would attend the celebration next year, which he did not do during his time as mayor. He did issue a Pride Month proclamation this year citing the LGBT community's contributions to St. Pete. But last night, as he's done previously, he clung to his standard response that the parade is too "adult-themed" for him. (Rick Kriseman has no such problem; he not only attends, he was last year's Grand Marshal.) Foster did vow, however, that he would attend next year's parade; he just wouldn't be in it.

Another question of interest to the LGBT community got the same one-word answer from both candidates.

Should gender identity be added to the human rights ordinance in St. Pete?

"Yes," said Kriseman.

"Yes," said the mayor.

They also answered "yes" to a proposed penny sales tax for public transportation, and agreed that the most important tool in fighting AIDS is education. Otherwise, there were nuanced differences between the two on a range of topics.

The Pier: Kriseman — a relative newcomer to the Stop the Lens bandwagon — supports a public referendum, and mentioned by comparison Tampa's decision to go back to the drawing board after its initial plans for an art museum tanked. Foster also agrees on the need for a referendum — "Mrs. Ford and I have agreed on one item regarding the Pier" — but rejects the idea that the current Pier can be salvaged, "It would be a disaster to fix the inverted pyramid."

Water level rise: This is an issue that relates to a larger question in Kriseman's mind: his view that the city has not taken advantage of its "world-class experts" in marine science, either in this issue or in planning the Pier. After some off-topic Beach Drive boosterism, Foster pointed to the fact that there are two marine scientists in his recently announced bipartisan 8/28 Alliance.

Midtown: Rob Lorei asked the mayor to grade himself on his performance in the district. Foster, saying the economic conditions made development "very challenging," listed projects now in the works (Sylvia's at the Casino, the new SPC campus, the African American Heritage Trail), and gave himself a B.

Kriseman gave Foster a C, scolding him for not hiring a replacement for Goliath Davis after firing him as the Midtown liaison. He also made a cogent point about the difference in city promotion of downtown vs. Midtown: There's plenty of signs telling people how to get to the Chihuly, he said, but "no signage for the Woodson" African American Museum in Midtown.

Jobs: Kriseman, who is fond of three-point plans, said his three goals in job creation would be 1) Take advantage of the medical and marine science sectors; 2) Encourage development of green jobs; and 3) Grow the Dome District — not just wait for "the big guy" to come along, but nurture the area's small businesses.

And what would Foster do? "What I've already done." He emphasized, as he often does, that "government doesn't create jobs," it creates environments for business. He pointed to his recent announcement of The Greenhouse, a business development partnership between the city, the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, and local academic institutions.

Jabil Circuit: On the much-talked-about prospect of Jabil Circuit moving its headquarters to downtown St. Pete, Kriseman acknowledged he was not "privy to the deal" but doesn't like the sound of an $8 million incentive with only a $4 million return to the city if promised jobs don't materialize: "If you want the money, give us the jobs, or give us the money back." Foster pointedly replied, "I am privy to the deal," emphasizing that, while it was "miles and miles away" from being complete, Jabil is "a Fortune 500 company being courted by many other states" and Tampa. "The competition is swift," he said. "It's out there."

The Rays: Rob Lorei got one of the biggest laughs of the evening with his observation, "I swear Mayor Buckhorn is measuring Channelside for the stadium." The mayor responded that he'd just had an hour-long conversation with Rays owner Stu Sternberg, and emphasized that his chief concern in any negotiation is to protect taxpayers' interests — "You've invested hundreds of millions on this odyssey" — while acknowledging that if the stadium area were freed up for development, those "85 unencumbered acres" would be "an urban planner's dream." Kriseman was more overtly ready to consider a Rays departure, while making sure they stay in the region. "Allow them to look if need be."

And finally, on the elephant, or rather the chicken, in the room, the absent Ms. Ford:

Kriseman: "You're not getting an opportunity to hear her visions. And not on her website either. We both have full-time jobs. We're here."

Foster: "I can't speak ill of anyone, however ... If this is a candidate's idea of transparency, I have a problem with that."

Seems like one reason a candidate would stay away from a debate is that she gets to grab the headlines without having to do any of the work — like, say, answering questions.

So leave it at this: Kathleen Ford was a no-show at last night's St. Pete mayoral debate organized by LGBT groups at the Metro Wellness Center. An interloper in a chicken suit did show up with a sign claiming Ford was "too chicken" to participate in the debate ("Not my chicken," Mayor Foster hastened to point out), but her official excuse, she told the Tampa Bay Times, was a conflict with an event at the Crossroads Neighborhood Association. (Her Facebook page today thanks supporters for attending the "Mayoral Debate last night at Crossroads Neighborhood with other Mayoral Candidate, Mr. Anthony Cates, III.")

In her absence, Mayor Bill Foster and former State Rep. Rick Kriseman acquitted themselves well. Amazingly enough, there were even a few examples of that rare commodity in political discourse: short, direct answers.

For the most part, that is. Mayor Foster still has a tendency to dither when it comes to the question of St. Pete Pride.

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