With the 2016 primary less than a month away, candidates running for the Tampa-based Florida House District 61 seat have their work cut out for them as they try to distinguish themselves.
All three Democrats spoke at a Tampa Tiger Bay Club forum Friday. They are East Tampa activist Dianne Hart, lawyer Sean Shaw and environmental engineer Walter Smith II. They're competing for the seat vacated by Ed Narain, who termed out and is now running for State Senate. House District 61 is also known as the “downtown Tampa” district, which covers Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights and Temple Crest.
There's no Republican in the race, which means it will be decided in the Aug. 30 primary.
Hart, a small business owner for more than 30 years, is an advocate for increasing early childhood education, offering vocational training in high schools and investing more in infrastructure.
“Those of you who are in the city of Tampa and especially in our House District 61, know that we have not had serious infrastructure improvements for more than 50 years,” Hart said. “That's why when we fix one pipe, another hole pops up someplace else.”
Hart is the only House District 61 candidate who was born and raised in Tampa.
The son of a former State Supreme Court Justice, Shaw grew up in Tallahassee, the heart of Florida politics. His father, Leander Shaw, was Florida’s first black Supreme Court Justice.
Shaw said he's a proponent for making education more of a budgetary priority, something he'd fight for if elected.
“The current budget shows that as a state, we don't think education is a high enough priority,” Shaw said. “We are 37th in the country for what we spend, per pupil spending. That's awful. Florida ought to be better than 37th and that's something I’m committed to trying to do.”
Shaw also emphasized that he already has connections in Tallahassee, which he hopes to leverage during the legislative session — something that's important if you're party is as vastly outnumbered as Democrats are in Florida.
“I’ve got relationships. I’ve got the ability to work with people up in Tallahassee. Because if you’re a Democrat, you have to be able to work across the aisle,” Shaw said. “Otherwise, all I’m going to do is sit in the back and throw bombs and have press conferences. That’s not what you’re sending me to do. You’re sending me to get results.”
Like Shaw, Walter Smith II was raised in Tallahassee, where his father, Walter L. Smith, served as president at Florida A&M University.
At the forum, Smith stressed that Tampa’s forgotten enclaves outside the urban core are suffering from unemployment and lack of investment. He named the areas of West Tampa, East Tampa, East Ybor, Sulphur Springs and Grant Park as places where residents are overlooked.
“This is the area where we’re forgetting about those people,” Smith said. “We’re detached. You need somebody who is attached.”
During the Q&A session, Tampa black conservative Al McCray asked the candidates what their opinions were on the Black Lives Matter movement. McCray said he is against the movement because “it puts black lives over everybody else’s lives” and “98.8 percent of blacks are killed by blacks.”
Shaw was the first to explain that the Black Lives Matter movement does not exclude other lives, but “it is essentially the community saying we want to make sure that people know that black lives matter, too.”
Hart said that she has witnessed black-on-black crime while living in East Tampa, but it's merely a symptom of the need to provide fair and affordable housing so people can have stable places to live.
“When we do the necessary simple things in our community to make the community a better place to live, then, and only then, will we see a decrease in a lot of the crime,” Hart said.
As for his response, Smith took a moment to pause, saying that his answer is an emotional one.
“Black Lives Matter is fighting for something very serious, and very near and dear to my heart. Anybody who questions the legitimacy of Black Lives Matter, I’m so sorry for you,” Smith said. “Because that means you truly don’t understand the history of people who are sitting right here in front of you. Because the three of us stand in support of something that is very real and has been going on for generations.”
Both Shaw and Smith were also critical of the controversial Tampa Bay Express project, which is located in House District 61.
“The way that the TBX was rolled out was an atrocity. It was not respectful to the community. It was not a dialogue, it was a monologue,” Shaw said. “It was essentially dubbed as ‘community discussions,’ and they told you what they were going to do, and essentially it was to destroy neighborhoods that were in this district.”
“We were put in a very reactive posture this term with the TBX issue,” Smith said. “My job is to make certain that doesn’t happen again.”
Tampa Tiger Bay member and longtime activist Michelle B. Patty also asked if any of the candidates were endorsed by the Florida Retail Federation, which is against an increase of the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Hart admitted that the Florida Retail Federation endorsed her, adding that the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations also supported her candidacy.
“I am not a person to be bought and sold. I’ve lived in this district for 61 years. I’ve advocated for the community for 35 of those,” Hart said. “I owe nothing to anybody for an endorsement. I owe it back to the district.”
According to SaintPetersBlog, Patty may have asked this question to put Hart in a corner because Patty’s picture appeared in a pro-Hart campaign mailer a few weeks ago, despite Patty being a Shaw supporter.
That suggests tensions are high as time runs out on the House District 61’s crowded Democratic primary.