ST. PETERSBURG - While polls show Kathleen Ford as the frontrunner in the mayor's race, her absences from recent debates is raising questions.
Today's Suncoast Tiger Bay Club lunch event marked the third debate Ford has missed this week, leading to a series of jokes at her expense. Someone even dressed up in a chicken suit and held a sign accusing her of being too "chicken" to debate her principal opponents, incumbent Bill Foster and former state lawmaker Rick Kriseman.
Foster and Kriseman shied away from attacking Ford - and also from two of the bigger issues defining the mayor's race: the Tampa Bay Rays' future in St. Petersburg and the controversial Lens project, which city leaders selected to replace the aging pier.
The other two candidates in the race, Anthony Cates III and Paul Congemi, also skipped today's debate.
Foster spent much of today's debate defending his record and highlighting the positive changes that have taken place since he took office in 2010.
Political blogger and campaign consultant Peter Schorsch asked Foster whether he thinks he's become "the first black mayor of St. Petersburg" - something Foster said he wanted to do prior to firing former Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, a powerful link to the city's black community - despite that community's nagging economic woes.
While characterizing his prior comment as hyperbole, Foster said that taking office during a recession has made it difficult to address the needs of the city's hardest-hit neighborhoods.
"The passion was always there," he said. "But the resources and the grant money during this recession were very difficult."
Foster and Kriseman, both former City Council members, were asked whether they had supported tax increases.
The mayor said the city's property tax rate hasn't gone up since he was on City Council, from 1998 to 2008. Kriseman said he never supported tax increases.
"When it came to the budget, I often voted against the budget," he said.
Kriseman and Foster also weighed in on how thoroughly the city should vet people and companies it awards contracts. Those questions came on the heels of a multimillion-dollar fine levied against Mortgage Investors Corporation, which the Federal Trade Commission accused of calling millions of people on the National Do Not Call Registry to pitch home refinancing services. The company is owned by investor Bill Edwards, who manages The Mahaffey Theater for the city and is trying to revive the former BayWalk retail plaza downtown.
"If you had known this at the time Edwards was awarded the contract to manage The Mahaffey, would you have still given it to him?" Pinellas County School Board member Linda Lerner asked.
The candidates differed on how to handle such situations.
"Obviously, anybody the city does business with, it's our obligation to look at their ethics," Kriseman said. "It's clearly problematic to be doing business with someone who has unethical behavior."
Ethics should be a "consideration" in such matters, but not the only one, Foster said.
"The Mahaffey contract is being handled by a different corporation," Foster said. "It's not Mortgage Investors Corporation. And secondly, Bill Edwards has been an incredible philanthropist and giver to this community."