Judging by the reaction of the crowd packed into the Bethel Community Baptist Church on 54th Avenue South last night, Rick Kriseman came out on top in the latest St. Pete mayoral debate.
"It’s hard to have a seamless city when you're not investing equally in all parts of the community," Kriseman cracked as several members in the crowd could be heard uttering "Amen."
He was responding to Mayor Foster's mission statement, mentioned earlier in the debate, about what it means to be a seamless city.
"It’s about making sure that we have safe environments throughout the city," Foster said. "Making sure that we have businesses that want to grow, that we have affordable housing stock. It’s all about opportunities. So a seamless city to me is that there is no imaginary place on the road, and that you feel comfortable regardless of where you live in the city."
The debate took place before a racially mixed crowd with less than two weeks to go before the Aug. 27 primary election. The conventional wisdom is that Kriseman and fellow Democrat Kathleen Ford are competing against each other to face Foster in November's general election. With the exception of a couple of questions posed by the moderator, the candidates mainly responded to queries from audience members.
The candidates appeared stumped when former St. Petersburg NAACP Chairman Ray Tampa asked them if they are willing to recognize and reject the "poverty pimps" in the community.
All three said they would, though only Ford repeated the "poverty pimps" phrase.
Saying summer jobs for St. Pete teenagers is crucial, City Councilman Wengay Newton (who is supporting Ford) blasted an earlier council for defunding such a program, and asked the candidates if their administration would support his request to earmark a million dollars for summer jobs.
Both Ford and Kriseman said they weren't on that particular council at the time. Ford called the decision to defund the program "stunning" and "unconscionable," while Kriseman said it was hard to believe it happened. He indirectly criticized Foster, saying that former Mayor Rick Baker was always able to find such money, be it from Tallahassee, Washington D.C., or in the private sector — a frequent Kriseman complaint about Foster.
Foster said if he was leading the city back in the boom era of the early to mid-aughts, it'd be no problem to fund such a program. But he said the city lost tens of millions of dollars in revenues through reduced property taxes and various other taxes and fees over the past half-decade. He also said that he wasn't on the council in question, though Newton said he was.
Central Avenue resident Kurt Donley asked the candidates about government sponsored institutional racism, and asked what they would do to correct that in St. Petersburg.
Ford responded by saying there is also institutional sexism and ageism. She veered into a discussion about the economic divide before concluding that when it comes to police investigations, "We know that, for example, white officers don't have to be sworn in, but black officers do. That's institutional racism."
Kriseman talked about institutional racism in housing and drug sentencing before segueing into a theme he's spoken about on the campaign trail before — the divide between north and south St. Pete.
He compared Central Avenue to the Great Wall of China, "It’s this border that if you live to the north, you never cross, and if we don’t ever change that perception, nothing is going to change in this community. We have to start breaking down these barriers, if we're going to really have a city that ‘s equal where everyone has the same opportunities to get jobs, to get places where they can afford to live, that they can raise their family in safety — that’s institutional racism."
Mayor Foster said he has zero tolerance for discrimination, but he took a different direction than his two Democratic challengers by saying that the victims of crimes should not be forgotten in such a discussion.
"When it comes to the enforcement of laws, there’s a victim somewhere. The police are called, and there’s a victim. There’s a complainant, and then it’s not up to the police officer, it’s not up to this mayor to pick and choose what laws to enforce. There's not really much gray area"
The mayor went on to say that it is important to demonstrate to first-time offenders that there are consequences for making poor choices. "If we catch it early, we can do something about it. But there's still a victim at the end of the day."
When asked about racial profiling, Foster said that contrary to rumors, he doesn't micromanage police. That led to a discussion about the police department's controversial car chase policy. The mayor said that the city's policy is the same as the state's. It's a policy that both Ford and Kriseman have taken issue with.
Former police chief Goliath Davis challenged Foster.
"We had a model policy," said Davis, in terms of car chases. He added that the mayor "bowed to the unions," and the policy is "bad."
And if it matters to you, we learned that Mayor Foster voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, Rick Kriseman voted for Barack Obama (and will gladly tell you he was the first Pinellas Democratically elected official to endorse him in 2007), and Kathleen Ford didn't respond to the question.