JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – With presentations ranging from folksy to scholarly, the seven candidates for Jacksonville sheriff faced each other Thursday night in the race's first and only televised debate.
The stage at Jacksonville University's Terry Concert Hall was full of candidates: Tony Cummings, Jay Farhat, Jimmy Holderfield, Ken Jefferson, Lonnie McDonald, Rob Schoonover and Mike Williams.
Due to the number of candidates, it was a rapid-fire discussion, but allowed each candidate a chance to answer questions on different issues posed by moderator Kent Justice: violent crime, officers on the street, racial issues, minority recruitment, juvenile crime and gangs.
Each candidate scored points in answers to different questions.
"The public must have a seat at the table when making critical decisions on how to police those hardest hit areas," Cummings answered when asked about controlling violent crime.
"It's just like in business: you have to market your agency," Farhat said on minority recruitment. "You have to go out to the community and engage them -- get them to buy into the agency."
"You have to get from behind a desk and out on the street, meeting your officers," Jimmy Holderfield said, then repeated his mantra: "Connect, protect and serve, that's what it's about."
"The person lying on the street in a pool of blood looks just like the one who pulled the trigger -- late teens, early 20s," Jefferson said on juvenile crime. "We've lost a generation."
"It's not a one-size-fits-all thing," McDonald said. "You have to be able to manage all of these different components of crime to reduce crime across the city."
"A major part of my plan is re-instituting the beat system -- putting officers back in neighborhoods, especially the risk neighborhoods," said Schoonover.
"We have to have a keen focus on the drug trade moving forward to get us ahead of this violent crime problem that's really been an issue for us for so long," said Williams.
The debate was considered critical since a University of North Florida poll taken earlier this month showed 34 percent of voters were still undecided. Since one candidate would have to receive 50 percent plus one vote to win outright on Tuesday, observers say it is almost certain that the top two candidates will advance to the second election in May.
People watching the debate said it helped them make up there minds about which candidate to vote for.
"Some people who I thought had the experience really didn't," said Mike Dodge.
"I thought it was fantastic," said Tamara Gill. "I was shocked that they covered that much in an hour and they talked about things that I was concerned about."
News4Jax political analyst Jennifer Carroll said Holderfield performed best, presenting himself as knowledgeable and connected, Farhat scored points saying he would include the faith-based community and was surprised that no one challenged Jefferson's pledge to reduce crime by 25 percent in his first year in office.
"None of them came out and addressed what we would do to protect our city, our airport, in our community to guard against home-grown terrorism or attacks on the Jacksonville area, and that's prevalent in all communities," Carroll said.
Crime and safety analyst Gil Smith said he felt like the three front runners going into the debate -- Holderfield, Jefferson and Williams -- remain there.
"I don't think the other candidates did much to pull up that spot, so we are where we were before," Smith said.