ST. PETERSBURG - After being accused of ducking a series of debates, mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford said she will take part in a candidate forum Saturday that she initially planned to miss because it clashed with her husband's birthday.
Over the past nine days, Ford missed four candidate forums and also declined to attend a meeting with the editorial board of The Tampa Tribune. Her no-shows have led critics to accuse her of deliberately avoiding her opponents and limiting the risk she will say something that will damage her lead in the polls.
They also made her the target of ridicule, with the Suncoast Tiger Bay debate moderator joking about her absence, and someone appearing at several debates in a chicken suit with a sign accusing Ford of being "too chicken" to face her main opponents, former state legislator Rick Kriseman and incumbent Bill Foster.
Ford was absent from a debate at Westminster Palms on Monday and on Tuesday missed the St. Petersburg LGBT Mayoral Debate because she had committed to attend a candidate event at the Crossroads Neighborhood Association. On Wednesday, she missed the influential Suncoast Tiger Bay Club debate because of a work conflict. Last week, she was absent from a debate for Democratic candidates.
Ford said that she is not ducking debates. She attended a candidate event organized by the Historic Kenwood Neighborhood Association on Wednesday and a debate organized by the NAACP last month. She missed events this week because they clashed with her work as an attorney, including taking a deposition and preparing for a two-week trial taking place outside of Pinellas County, she said. She has committed to attend several upcoming debates.
"I'm working as hard as I can to accommodate whenever I can," she said.
But two debate organizers said they offered Ford alternative dates for their events.
Ann McMullan, president of the Tiger Bay board of directors, said the group offered Ford two alternative dates.
David Schauer, who helped organize the LGBT debate, said Ford initially did not respond to a debate invitation. Ford then "unfriended" him on Facebook after he was quoted in a newspaper article talking about her absence, he said.
"I thought it was incredibly petty," Schauer said.
Ford declined to confirm that but said Schauer had lied about her response.
Polls have put Ford ahead of Foster and Kriseman. She is also expected to benefit from the referendum on the pier being on the same ballot because of her strong support for saving the inverted pyramid pier.
Negative publicity over her absences could damage her chances, though, said Darryl Paulson, a retired professor of government and Florida politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
"Voters of all stripes expect a candidate to answer tough questions and to face audiences," he said. "To use excuse after excuse, like her husband's birthday, goes right to the heart of her credibility as a candidate."
Avoiding debates can work for some elected officials who have name recognition and a proven record in office but does not make sense for Ford, Paulson said.
"I can't think of a worse strategy, especially for someone who has a lead in a race." Paulson said.
Kriseman said Ford's no-shows were denying voters the chance to learn about her stance on key issues.
"With the exception of the Lens, I don't know if anyone could tell you her position on issues," he said. "I'm an attorney also; I have depositions and trials, but they're not going on at 7 p.m. at night."
Foster declined to comment on Ford's absences directly.
"As mayor, I try to be open, transparent and accessible to all groups," he said. "That what you have to do when you're mayor."
The South St. Petersburg Democratic Club is hosting a candidate forum for the mayor's race and City Council Districts 4, 6 and 8 at 11 a.m. today at the Sanderlin Center, 2335 22nd Ave. S.