Mayoral Candidates Bare Teeth at Debate

09/24/09 Kate Bradshaw
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With fewer than six weeks left until Election Day, the St. Petersburg mayoral race has gaining steam. Last night marked the South St. Pete leg of the mayoral debates, which took place at Lakewood High School. Candidates Bill Foster and Kathleen Ford exchanged jabs over two very different visions for the Sunshine City. WMNF’s Kate Bradshaw reports.

With the economy on everyone’s minds, it didn’t take long for the mayoral candidates to dig in to the biggest issue of the election year. Two minutes into her opening speech, Democrat Kathleen Ford brought up the increase in property taxes the city collected while opponent Bill Foster sat on City Council. She questioned where the money – which she said comprises $286 million - went.

Bill Foster began his opening address by scoffing at Ford’s accusations that Foster was part of an old boy network of local politicians that stands in the way of progress.

He then told the audience about the neighborhood policing he has in mind for the city if elected.

On the surface, the two candidates are somewhat similar. Both have previously sat on St. Pete City Council. Both are lawyers. But Foster is a social conservative and a proponent of creationism while Ford is a former pediatric nurse who believes investing in science in technology is vital for the city’s future. Their policies on a number of key matters are often wildly divergent. This became apparent as each fielded questions from Lakewood students. These ran the gamut from law enforcement to recycling. Foster’s take on law enforcement, the department that takes the biggest chunk of the city’s budget, was that the city needs a more hands-on approach.

Ford, on the other hand, decried the department’s computer system, which she says needs to sync with those of other law enforcement bodies. She then proposed that the city to restore a victim’s position to its staff to help prevent crime.

A key point in the debate came when moderator Ray Arsenault asked the candidates a question from a constituent who wanted to know how they would make the Rays stay in the Tampa Bay area. Major league games at Tropicana Field provide a vital source of revenue for the city, which faces the threat of the team leaving before its contract expires in 2027. Ford and Foster differ greatly in their approach. Foster told the audience that building a new stadium to keep the team from leaving is an option, but it should ultimately be up to the voters. He later added that teams break such contracts with cities all the time.

Ford, on the other hand, said that the city should leave taxpayer funds for its immediate needs and accused Foster of conducting backroom dealings in the planning of the new stadium.

One student moderator asked the candidates if they would cut their own salaries if elected, given that the governor, whose salary is substantially less than that of the St. Pete mayor, has opted to take a pay cut. Ford gave an emphatic yes, but Foster, though he said that sweeping cuts start with the mayor, seemed less thrilled about the idea.

One of the evening’s thornier points came when a questioner asked Ford about recent comments leaked to the press claiming that Foster knew of a colleague’s rumored sexual misconduct with minors and whether they compromised her credibility, given her promise to run a clean campaign.

While the ailing economy seems to be a major target in both of their campaigns, a wide rift exists between the two when it comes to the question of how to solve it. Many audience members at the event seemed to already have their minds made up as to which candidate has the best solution. Miss Maddy Wright was among audience members who support Ford.

The election is November third, and deadline to register to vote is October fifth.

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