League of Women Voters hold forum for St. Petersburg City Council candidates

By : Samuel Johnson
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ST. PETERSBURG | St. Petersburg City Council candidates discussed a variety of city specific issues. The overarching tone was, generally speaking, vague on details but full of amiable rhetoric. Whether it was talk on the Rays, the pier or Pride celebrations; there wasn’t any tangible fringe politicking.

The League of Women Voters organized this public event which took place in the council chambers at city hall Sept. 25. It’s the third forum following the August primaries. All six candidates were present: Barclay Harless and Brandi Gabbard of District 2, Jerick Johnston and incumbent Darden Rice of District 4, Gina Driscoll and Justin Bean of District 6.

The few dozen citizens who attended the event witnessed a subdued forum; the rules didn’t allow for debate. However, partisan politics and ideology were gurgling just below the surface as candidates fielded questions.

Looming in the minds of constituents in particular districts is the fallout from Hurricane Irma. Although Irma didn’t impact St. Petersburg as ferociously as it did other areas of Florida, it did propel certain lingering issues to the top of the priority list for the candidates.

This led to talking points like infrastructure, water and waste management, shoreline protection, job creation, education and early childhood development, which were echoed by all candidates.

Yet, preventing the militarization of the St. Petersburg Police Department was not unanimous. The question posed to the candidates: “Does the St. Petersburg Police Department need to employ military gear, weapons and tactics to keep the city safe?”

Bean left the door open. “When you say military gear, I’m not sure what you are referring to. I will do whatever I can to support them,” he said.

One of the few instances afforded the candidates to elaborate their distinct vision of rebuilding St Petersburg came during the topic of Tropicana Field. This is the Rays baseball stadium which sits on an 85-acre piece of prime St. Pete real estate.

Almost perfunctorily, they one for one extolled the Rays but conceded that it’s a real possibility that the Rays are not staying at Tropicana Field. Rice was perhaps the most candid on the topic.

“Realistically, let’s just be honest, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen,” she said.

But the question remains, what to do with the vacant land after the Rays move? The points they all agree on, without fleshing out the minutiae, are job creation, affordable housing, a culturally sensitive redevelopment of a historic part of the city that was dismantled for the creation of Tropicana Field and stimulating small business growth.

Almost anachronistic to the sentiment of small business growth, is the idea floated by all the candidates of building a large convention center on the future parcel of land now occupied by Tropicana Field. Of course, these are the grains of political pixie dust which may or may not come to fruition.

The one word answers given by each candidate during one of lightning rounds raised some eyebrows.

When questioned whether they support the Defend Our Democracy Ordinance, which would ban Super PAC money and limit other money from St. Petersburg elections, Rice and Driscoll were the only candidates to agree with the ordinance. However, Harless used a portion of his closing remarks to condemn money in politics.

Another moment where all candidates invoked special speaking time, was when St. Pete Pride came up.

They love it. They rode in it. They go every year. They support it. Each took the time to recount their experiences about Pride. Driscoll emotionally told of her first time ever riding in the parade. It was on the Watermark float.

“I was quite proud to be on the Watermark float” Driscoll said. “It is a publication that has for several years served a resource and a beacon for the LGBT community here and in Orlando. As the float came around the Vinoy, the sea of people were just happy and proud. I had tears in my eyes. I don’t think there’s ever been a moment where I have been so proud to be in this city.”

Residents can vote for the city council candidates in and outside their districts in the general election Nov. 7. Postal mail-in ballots are scheduled to be sent Oct. 3.

(Photo by Samuel Johnson.)

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