Rose Ferlita goes on offense in first one-on-one Tampa mayoral debate

Ferlita then said her biggest concern with her opponent was that she had a different philosophy than him on government. "I want to reduce government, he wants to increase it," referring to Buckhorn's plan to hire "what, three, four deputy mayors? ...I believe in less government and efficiencies, while he's wanting to add people to his staff." Buckhorn countered that he intended to only hire two deputy mayors, and he would fund it by reducing other parts of city personnel, meaning there was no net increase to the budget. And he added that refocusing city government was a good thing.

Ferlita kept on the offensive when the candidates were asked about the first three things they would do in office, saying Buckhorn would be moving people from "one cubicle to another," adding, "I'm not going to waste one moment restructuring government."

Perhaps the funniest line of the night came from the Times' Adam Smith who, after Buckhorn responded that his proudest accomplishment in his life had been his kids, said,"That was a beach ball. Rose?"

Ferlita's response was one of the most interesting things we've heard from her during this campaign season."My proudest accomplishment is a lifetime of satisfaction that I lived up to my parents' expectations." But she then sounded a bit like Dick Greco (or George W.Bush), when she quickly responded "No," when Smith asked her if she had any specific regrets.

In their closing remarks, Buckhorn hit back at Ferlita one last time on the sparing details of her agenda, saying, "With all due respect, Rosie, tomorrow is way too late." Ferlita came back in her closing statement said that "Bob's plan is a plan to plan. My plan is a natural plan."

The next debate will be this Friday morning, a 30-minute televised encounter without an audience that will be taped by the City of Tampa Television and hosted by the Hillsborough County League of Women Voters, and then played back over the course of the next two weeks on that government access channel.  This reporter will be one of the panelists.  I will bring you a report on that forum Friday afternoon in this space.

Tuesday night was potentially the biggest moment in the Tampa mayoral campaign to date — a one-on-one debate between the two candidates still left standing, Rose Ferlita and Bob Buckhorn.  After a slow start, both candidates got a little sassy with each other, as Ferlita tried to put Buckhorn on defense for one of the few times during the campaign.

Although the stakes were higher, there was less tension in Blake High School for the debate than the previous live televised encounter exactly four weeks earlier, because there were considerably fewer people in the auditorium.  If this is an indication of the interest in the March 22 election, voter participation could very well be less than the paltry 22% that opted to participate in the electoral experience last week.  Or it could be the case that with three fewer entourages in tow, there were less people willing to go out on a Tuesday night when they could kick back at home and watch the proceedings on Bay News 9.  Or heaven forbid, not watch at all.

The biggest rap against Rose Ferlita has been a lack of specifics about her agenda, though in fact she did produce her "Building Blocks" program back in January. She announced and hyped the fact that she will be unveiling more details on Wednesday, which didn't win her any points with Buckhorn or from co-moderator Adam Smith of the St. Pete Times, who both questioned unveiling such a plan so late in the campaign.

Whoever wins later this month will succeed the popular Pam Iorio at City Hall, and both candidates paid excessive tribute to the current mayor.  Buckhorn said she had done an "amazing job" making sure that Tampa's finances were secure, while Ferlita said she left the budget "in fantastic shape."

And when asked directly to name something that Iorio failed to accomplish in office, neither candidate dared to go there.

Friction developed when Ferlita went deeper with a theme that she has developed in recent candidate forums — that Buckhorn is guilty of elitism for talking about bringing in clusters of bio and hi-tech jobs to the area, and dissing call center gigs.  "You know what?" Ferlita asked."Thirty percent of our population has a bachelor's degree. I want to make sure that Tampa has jobs and opportunities, for all of Tampa."

Buckhorn retorted, "The job of the next mayor is not to settle for the jobs of the past, but to free up a path for the jobs for the future."

In what has turned out to be one of the most entertaining parts of these debates — when the candidates ask questions of each other — Buckhorn quoted an editorial in Tuesday's St. Pete Times about his opponent's lack of specifics detailed so far. Buckhorn asked: Didn't the voters deserve to hear the specifics?  Ferlita responded by paraphrasing a Buckhorn quote from early January (when Ed Turanchik had released his plan before anyone else) about not rolling out a plan until people were paying attention.  Ferlita sounded a bit cocky when saying that even without a specific plan, she's leading in a Chamber of Commerce poll, and "It's not an empty plan. I look forward to comparing yours, and mine, and I guarantee yours will have a gaping hole."

Ferlita then went for the jugular when it was her time to ask a question of Buckhorn.  She mentioned how he had become a political consultant (and news analyst on Bay News 9, which she didn't mention), after his last run for political office ended in 2004, then asked starkly, "How successful were you at that?" Saying people needed details, she  showed off her opposition research by saying that "If you look at your income earnings for that year I think what was it? $7,000?"

But Buckhorn adroitly pivoted after appearing to be a bit startled by the question. He said that when he started the campaign he had made a conscious decision with his wife to back off from consulting so he could stay away from any conflicts of interest.  Then he turned to Ferlita and said, "If I were you, I would be much less concerned with how much Kathy (his wife) and I made, and far more concerned about how will help some of the constituents that I met along the way. Those folks need us to be engaged in this race."

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