If you were to have walked into Mt Zion AME Church in south St. Petersburg on Thursday night without having any idea about the candidates running for the District 6 City Council seat, you would have likely left believing the political cliché that all eight candidates share the same goals with radically different plans to reach them.
In a crowded field in a district where some parts are being developed beyond the point of affordability while others lack basic amenities like a simple supermarket, two hours was barely enough time for each candidate to voice their views on the district's uneven progress and far from enough to establish a platform.
This served as more of an introduction to everyone in the race. The first three questions moderator Trevor Pettiford of Bay News 9 asked, which were about the candidates' relationship to the district, what their hobbies were and how they distinguished themselves, covered nearly half of the debate time. Here we were introduced to Justin Bean, Robert Blackmon, Eritha “Akile” Cainion, Gina Driscoll, Corey Givens Jr., James Jackson, James Scott and Maria L. Scruggs.
It was Cainion who seemed to have left the largest impression on the evening. A member of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, her undeniable passion was matched only by the cheers of her supporters, who were a dominant presence in the audience. The crowd was so overwhelmingly pro-Cainion that Pettiford and eventually Mt Zion's Rev. Clarence Williams had to step in and plead with the crowd to settle down. While her message of reparations for the black community isn't likely to define the race, at 20 years old she is unlikely to leave the political scene anytime soon.
Along with Cainion, it was those most familiar with Midtown, the heart of the city's African-American community, that got the best responses. Scruggs, the current president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, was also among candidates whose messages were best-received.
Givens Jr.'s life spent in the neighborhood and knowledge of the local spiritual leaders gained him some credibility, while newer residents such as Blackmon said he eats at Salem's — a fast-food chain specializing in greasy foods — all the time due to the lack of a supermarket.
Blackmon nearly had to go on the defensive due to his occupation as a real estate developer in a crowd that was vehemently opposed to gentrification. He defended his reputation at one point by pointing out that he had a house nearby with central air conditioning for rent at the reasonable price of $640 a month. The most awkward moment of the debate could have been Jackson's strange comparison to the strength of the people in Central Africa in fighting famine with the perseverance of those in Midtown in finding independent alternatives to the big box supermarkets that have left.
District 6 is a large place and while Midtown will play a large part in deciding, Thursday's debate won't be the end-all for who the winner is. While Gina Driscoll, President of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, came across as a polished politician with a strikingly similar speaking pattern to Hilary Clinton, she did not receive much reaction. That's likely to not be the case in debates closer to her home base.
Jobs, development that benefits all, a stable supermarket and food source for the community and better education and opportunity for youth in Midtown are a focus for all candidates, but each candidate has a different idea of how to achieve those ends.
The primary is August 29. Assuming no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will go on to the November general.