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

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."