City council candidates talk Trop, Midtown at forum

...And a little politics, here and there.

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click to enlarge Left to right: Brandi Gabbard, Barclay Harless, Jerick Johnston, Council Chair Darden Rice, Justin Bean and Gina Driscoll. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
Left to right: Brandi Gabbard, Barclay Harless, Jerick Johnston, Council Chair Darden Rice, Justin Bean and Gina Driscoll.

With St. Petersburg out of Hurricane Irma crisis mode, the municipal elections are back on the minds of candidates and voters alike.

In the third forum since the August primary, six city council hopefuls – Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless of District 2, incumbent Darden Rice and Jerick Johnston of District 4, and Justin Bean and Gina Driscoll of District 6 -- faced dozens of residents at city hall to highlight the issues affecting their districts. The League of Women Voters hosted the event and the candidates seemed especially poised, polished and civil.

But partisan politics and the specter of Donald Trump still made a brief appearance (more on that later).

For most of the evening, the candidates hardly differentiated themselves, a sign of St. Pete’s changing demographics and left-leaning political persuasions.

All the aspirants supported the city’s Pride Festival. All agreed on human-influenced climate change and the need for more infrastructure spending. No candidate wanted taxpayer money to build a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.

But there were a few key differences.

When asked about allowing the police to buy military equipment, District 6 candidate Bean questioned what the moderator meant by military equipment and signaled his unequivocal support for police.

“Right now we don’t have enough police officers on the street,” said Bean. “We need to find more ways to fund them.”

Gina Driscoll, who has the backing of the seat's outgoing Councilman Karl Nurse for the seat, was less vague.

“I don’t believe it is necessary or appropriate to militarize our police department,” said Driscoll, adding body cameras and gunfire detection technology would be a better use of city money.

Driscoll, along with Rice, the current City Council Chair were the only candidates supporting a proposal to ban Super PAC money from municipal elections. (Rice first brought up the proposal last year.)

Responding to a question gauging support to designate St. Pete a “sanctuary city,” only half the candidates – Bean, Driscoll and District 2 hopeful Harless – supported such a designation.

The candidates also agreed on the need to provide incentives for solar power use, though Harless, Gabbard and District 4 challenger Johnston opposed any “mandates” – a dig at a recent city council attempt to gauge the viability of a solar power ordinance for new buildings.

A good chunk of the forum dealt with the Rays viability in St. Pete and what redevelopment of Tropicana field might look like.

“Let’s be honest, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen,” said Rice of the baseball team’s prospects of staying in St. Pete. “We’re winners anyway with that 85 acres of redevelopment. With or without a stadium.”

Harless, a manager with the Bank of the Ozarks who wants the seat vacated by Councilman Jim Kennedy, called redevelopment of Tropicana Field “a once in a city’s lifetime opportunity.”

“We also need to look at the history … and keep that historical aspect in mind,” he said, referring to the old Gas Plant neighborhood, which was razed to make room for the stadium.

Gabbard, a realtor, said a convention center and affordable housing should be part of the plan, too.

The candidates were less specific on ways to help the city’s homeless, though Bean supports the “Housing First” strategy backed by many homeless advocates and Harless focused on the need to help LGBTQ youth, who disproportionately make up homeless teenagers.

The candidates also addressed economic development in Midtown.

Johnston, a political newcomer facing incumbent Rice in District 4, pushed for incentives to help people start their own businesses. Johnston is a 21-year-old USF-St. Pete student and a small business owner himself. He is considered a long shot for the District 4 seat, raising just over $4,000 compared with Rice’s $170,000 in contributions.

Rice touched on gains made by the Midtown Community Redevelopment Area grant program and the council’s passage of a wage theft ordinance.

Gabbard, a married mother of a 6-year-old son, said early childhood education was the key.

Bean, much like his fellow Republican Rick Baker, pushed for more services in Midtown.

“How do we get a grocery store in Tangerine plaza?” he asked rhetorically.

Driscoll, who serves as president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said she wants the district’s poorest residents to get involved.

“I don’t want people to wait on what happens next,” she said. “They can be what happens next.”

With four city council seats up for grabs, the post-election composition of the council could have real consequences for the elected mayor. If the council maintains its progressive majority, a newly reelected Mayor Rick Kriseman would be able to implement his core agenda. But a more conservative change in just a couple seats could stymie his proposed programs. And, conversely, wins by Rice and Driscoll could make for more contentious council meetings in a Rick Baker administration if Baker, a former mayor, manages to best Kriseman in November. (A mayoral forum hosted by LWV is set for tonight.)

The only real drama of the night came during closing statements by Bean, a registered Republican.

“Unfortunately, the race has been extremely partisan,” he said, adding his reputation has been unfairly tarnished. “I want to run a race that’s focused on the issues.”

Despite his political party, Bean said he rejected much of Donald Trump’s agenda and hoped St. Pete residents would look at his work in the community. In some respects, his opponent’s closing statements seemed to agree.

“What you really hear from people is they are concerned with what’s happening right outside their doors,” said Driscoll.

The only candidate who did not appear at the forum is incumbent Councilwoman Amy Foster, who does not have a challenger to her District 8 seat.

There are 42 days until the election. All residents can vote for the city council candidates, even those outside their district.

“In the end, the important thing is to vote,” said Rice.

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