One City Council candidate had a longer criminal history than employment record. A candidate for mayor asked not to be considered for the recommendation by the Tampa Bay Times editorial board but then answered questions for 40 minutes. A third candidate kicked it off by inviting us to a fundraiser ("Complimentary valet parking!").
Interviewing candidates for public office is rarely dull, often surprising and always illuminating about the mood of the city. Among the 31 candidates for mayor and City Council, there were 26 men and just five women. It is a fairly solid group, and gender aside, reflective of the growing city - younger, many newer to town and from different professions and walks of life. Here are four themes that emerged from our discussions.
-Public schools need attention. Though the Hillsborough County School District is run by a separately elected board, virtually every candidate pointed to the need for closer collaboration between the city and the school district. They recognize that a strong talent pool is essential to attracting new industry and diversifying the economy. Recent studies by the Tampa Bay Partnership and the University of South Florida highlight the challenges the city faces in carrying out its ambitious plans to remake itself into an urban innovation hub. Unlike in St. Petersburg, where the mayors have taken a more visible, active role in promoting and supporting local schools, Tampa officials have never shown the same interest in improving outcomes in the classroom. But the candidates generally want the city to be more involved and supportive - something the school district should welcome.
-- There could be tax increases. Nobody is calling for raising taxes, but most candidates recognize the city faces financial challenges, and they are open to considering higher taxes and fees in the next four years. Mayoral candidate David Straz and council candidate Wendy Pepe took the hardest anti-tax positions, all but ruling out higher taxes. But their budget numbers don't work, or their spending plans rely on unrealistic expectations that the private sector will pay for more essential public services. In general, the candidates who understood the city's budget picture best were the most open to generating new revenue. They were not indifferent to the financial hardships many residents face, especially now that Hillsborough voters raised the county sales tax for transportation and school improvements. But they recognize the city has a multitude of needs, from replacing aging infrastructure to maintaining staffing levels at the Tampa Police Department. And they're mindful that while Tampa raised its property tax rate in 2017 - for the first time since 1989 - the city's tax rate is still lower than in St. Petersburg, Miami, Orlando and other peer cities.
-There is little appetite for spending public money on a stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. Most candidates would like the Rays to stay in the region, preferably in Tampa. But no one is championing a tax, few support even limited public financing and virtually no candidate offers more than a passing nod to the issue. The mayoral candidates speak more freely about a willingness to negotiate and explore creative funding sources, but even their comments sound perfunctory, more aimed at ginning up their regional credentials than preparing a plan for action. In general, the Rays are seventh or eighth on the priority list, if that; some candidates have other ideas for the proposed Ybor City stadium site, and some want to plunk the stadium instead on the site of a dog track north of downtown as an attempt at mid-city renewal. The team may have support for a new stadium from some in Tampa's business community, but it's hard to find any firm support for building a new stadium among candidates for mayor and City Council.
-Green, green, green. The race is full of first-time candidates who see smarter growth and climate policies as key to Tampa's economic future. The candidates want more density in the urban core and more mass transit options, plus new policies to make housing more affordable and growth more sustainable. They also want to make water, sewer and other costly public infrastructure more resilient to rising seas and killer storms. These priorities are a far cry from those expressed four or eight eight years ago. This reflects the growing awareness of the impacts of climate change, and a housing market out of reach for too many by rising property values and lingering effects from the recession. Yet it's also the product of young, first-time candidates such as Nicholas Glover from South Carolina, who married and moved to the city six years ago. They are echoing the agenda of older progressives and delivering it with a greater sense of urgency. They also are turning transit and sustainability into pocketbook issues, and they are getting traction.
Not everyone, of course, will be winners in the March 5 election. But history suggests many who fall short will reappear on a future ballot for local office. Their agendas in this election are a snapshot of the public mood that is driving a new era in Tampa.
John Hill is a Tampa Bay Times editorial writer.