ST. PETERSBURG — Perhaps it was campaign weariness or the small audience at City Hall, but there were just a few sparks as the candidates who hope to lead the city for the next four years squared off Thursday evening for the last televised debate of a long primary campaign.
Incumbent Bill Foster and his main challengers Kathleen Ford and Rick Kriseman are only separated in the polls by 9 percentage points. But the three took only occasional shots at one another as they debated how to grow the city’s economy, help the county’s ailing schools, lower crime and deal with the divisiveness over the city’s pier.
Even Thursday’s warning from Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to intervene on behalf of the Tampa Bay Rays produced no new insights from the main mayoral hopefuls, all of whom said the city must protect its investment in Tropicana Field while trying to work with the Rays.
Neither Kriseman nor Ford challenged Foster over the apparent stalemate in negotiations. Foster repeated his campaign message that he is willing to negotiate to keep the Rays in the region after the team’s contract to play at the Trop expires in 2027.
“We’re not compromising the integrity of the contract nor are we compromising the interests of the taxpayers of St. Petersburg,” he said.
Paul Congemi, one of two candidates excluded from some mayoral debates because they poll at less than 5 percent, said the Rays need only look at the $5 charge for hot-dogs and soda and the $20 cost to park to see why there are so many seats.
“Lower the prices and you will fill the stadium,” he said.
The biggest dust-up came during a discussion on public safety. As they have throughout the campaign, both Kriseman and Ford said they would push for more community policing if elected.
“We’ve gotten away from traditional community policing,” Kriseman said. “There needs to be that relationship between the officer and the neighbor that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.”
Foster said the pair did not understand modern community policing. He said the city’s police department deploys officers in specialized units in high-crime areas and that reassigning those officers to regular neighborhood beats would not lower crime.
“You’re going back to a failed model,” he said.
When asked how to revitalize Midtown, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, Kriseman said Foster should have found a replacement for Goliath Davis, whose job was to develop and attract businesses to the area.
Foster said the city’s plans to partner with Pinellas County to create community redevelopment areas including special tax districts would raise money for infrastructure improvements. He said the city would also use revenue from a foreclosure settlement and that incentives to rehab homes are also beginning to work.
“We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
The debate, hosted by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, also quizzed candidates on how they would move forward if voters reject The Lens pier design in the upcoming referendum.
Ford said she would want to put more ideas before voters including rehabbing the existing pier, which could be done for less than a $70 million estimate by narrowing the approach, she said.
She blamed Foster for the uncertainty the city now faces on its signature waterfront building.
“City Council did what the mayor directed them to do; unfortunately it wasn’t what the citizens of St. Petersburg wanted,” she said.
Voters go to the polls on Aug. 27. Anthony Cates, a 23-year-old businessman who left the debate early, is also on the ballot.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the two candidates with the most votes will meet in a runoff Nov. 5.