TAMPA - Candidates for mayor may shiver tonight as they debate outside in the cold at the new Sparkman Wharf, but the race to replace term-limited Mayor Bob Buckhorn is heating up.
In the last week, candidates have held news conferences, christened campaign headquarters and spread their message on a rented trolley.
Tonight, seven candidates are expected to debate transportation and safety issues following the approval of a penny on the dollar increase in the county sales tax to pay for transit improvements.
Debates so far have featured former police chief Jane Castor, branding consultant Topher Morrison, City Council members Harry Cohen and Mike Suarez, former county commissioner Ed Turanchik, retired banker and philanthropist David Straz and community activist LaVaughn King.
King has yet to raise a dollar while Straz, largely self-funded, has already spent nearly $1.15 million.
The first round of voting is March 5. If no one captures a majority, the top two candidates advance to an April 23 runoff. The new mayor takes office May 1.
Most of them have been raising money for months. Straz has already run TV commercials and the man with enough money to put his name on the city's performing arts center has promised to spend whatever it takes to compete. So far, that means about five times more than the other candidates combined.
But it's not just Straz who is stacking money. Castor has raised more than $420,000 between her associated political action committee and individual contributions, according to campaign finance documents filed Monday.
Turanchik, who raised nearly $26,000 in November in individual contributions, has pulled in about $310,000 in his associated political action committee and contributions while Cohen has netted about $280,000 from the same fund-raising sources
Suarez (around $122,000) and Morrison (just under $60,000) bring up the rear.
Straz has been spending heavily, but he still has around $400,000 on hand. Turanchik has spent more than a third of what he's raised so far. Cohen has spent even more of his take. Castor, meanwhile, has only drained about 10 percent of her war chest.
A year after the most expensive - and bitter - mayoral race in St. Petersburg's history, Tampa's campaign promises to be a pricey, hard-fought contest, too. In the first two forums, Turanchik has become a target while Castor, who has led in early polling, has escaped attacks.
Straz missed the first forum in early October and read from prepared notes in the second one, held weeks later. Many observers were impressed with Morrison's performance in the first forum, but his high-flying ideas got some pushback from other candidates in the second.
Tonight's 6 p.m. forum, outside at Sparkman Wharf with temperatures expected in the low 50s, is organized by the transportation advocacy group, Walk Bike Tampa. Through chattering teeth, the event will undoubtedly unveil new political storylines.
Will colleagues Suarez and Cohen continue a hands-off policy towards each other?
Will Straz wing it or bring his notepad again?
Will Castor be dragged into the fray?
And how will Turanchik's opposition to the transportation tax and his subsequent call on social media for the county to get an independent legal opinion on the legality of the tax play in a forum likely to be well-attended by fervent supporters of the tax.
The candidates have been sent 16 questions and will be asked about eight of them. The forum will be moderated by Tampa Bay Times editor and columnist Ernest Hooper.
The last week has seen a flurry of campaign activities. On Thursday, Straz unveiled his new headquarters in a building in East Tampa shared by La Gaceta, whose owner and editor, Patrick Manteiga, has been a supporter of Straz and a recipient of his campaign cash.
Organizers said the opening at 3208 E. 7th Ave. drew about 120 people. Arriving about midway through the event, a Times reporter saw a sizable, mostly African-American crowd in the offices. Straz wasn't there, though, having been waylaid by a minor illness.
The rent will be paid to Manteiga's partners who jointly own the building with him, said Straz spokesman Jarrod Holbrook.
That same day, Tampa City Council chairman Frank Reddick was accused at a council meeting of rape by a woman who said he had forced her to engage in oral sex nearly 40 years earlier. Through an attorney, Reddick denied the allegation and Tampa police didn't pursue charges after an investigation.
Reddick has been a prominent part of the Straz campaign, which has promised to revitalize depressed neighborhoods in East Tampa.
Holbrook declined comment on Reddick's current or future role with the campaign.
Five union and construction groups endorsed Straz last week, including the International Brotherhood of Electrial Workers Local 824 and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1625. Turanchik also recently snagged an endorsement from Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith.
On Friday, Castor appeared in Robles Park with about a dozen former police, fire chiefs and other law enforcement officials who have endorsed her. They said she knew the city better than any other candidate and had a record of leadership and deep community trust.
When asked by the Times if the biking while black controversy had tarnished that reputation, Castor, who has already stated the policy was a mistake, said it had been undertaken with the best intentions.
"I spent 31 years building those relationships," Castor said. "When we had the controversy over the biking citations, our intent was pure. We were trying to make our community safer. But when it caused tension in the very neighborhoods we were trying to protect, then clearly it was a not a successful initiative and that's why it stopped."
"We never received pushback from the community on that very issue," she concluded, although public protests did occur in the weeks following a 2015 Times report on the practice, which prompted a U.S Department of Justice review.
On Saturday, Suarez took a trolley tour of the city to formally kick off his campaign with stops in Forest Hills, East Tampa, Bayshore and West Tampa to highlight his theme of being the candidate most in touch with everyday Tampa residents in the city's 80-odd neighborhoods.