Driving around some of St. Petersburg's neighborhoods in and around the Historic Old Northeast, you'd get few clues that balloting in the primary for the City Council is coming up in about a week.
Unlike the adjacent District 6 to the south, there is less than a smattering of yards signs, no billboard ads, few political brochures clogging the mailboxes.
"We're quiet right now," says Elaine Clark, president of the Allendale Terrace Neighborhood Association.
"The last week or so, the primary hasn't been very much on my mind, what with Katrina going on," said Raoul Simon, president of the Euclid-St. Paul's Neighborhood Association.
St. Petersburg's District 4 is an irregular pie wedge that stretches north from Central Avenue downtown to as far west at I-275 and north nearly to 54th Avenue, excluding some well-known neighborhoods on its eastern edge along Tampa Bay such as Shore Acres, Snell Isle and Coffee Pot Bayou. It includes Old Northeast, Greater Woodlawn, Crescent Heights, Crescent Lakes, Downtown, Five Points and Allendale Terrace. Many of its neighborhoods were built from 1910 to 1940; some still feature original brick streets.
District 4 is represented by first-term Councilwoman Virginia Littrell. Challenging her are former council member Leslie Curran and first-time candidate Kim Trombley.
Many St. Petersburg voters have little idea there is an election coming up. It is an off-year, and the city has moved its elections to the fall instead of the more traditional spring municipal balloting schedule. St. Pete elections are nonpartisan, meaning that everyone can vote in them regardless of party registration. It also means that the Republican vs. Democrat fervor that often drives up media coverage — if not voter turnout — isn't present.
Between all that and a lack of campaign public forums, is it any wonder that voters are mostly unaware of the impending Sept. 27 primary?
Kim Trombley steps outside the back porch of her home in the Greater Woodlawn neighborhood and walks to the alley behind it. She points to each home nearby as she recites the litany of crime.
"The grandmother who lives there was burglarized," she points out. Another neighbor's car has been broken into twice. "The little old lady who lived there," across the alley, "was murdered."
Greater Woodlawn, a very nice middle-class neighborhood, hardly appears crime-ridden. But it is those events over the past year and a half that are driving Trombley, 49, to make her first run for public office.
"I do not feel safe in my neighborhood," Trombley says.
Trombley knows her pro-police priorities don't exactly fit some people's image of a progressive Democrat (she is the only Democrat in the race). But she wants to see more community police officers in St. Petersburg's neighborhoods. She bemoans the fact that St. Petersburg has just one police officer for every 467 residents (Tampa's ratio is one cop per every 350 residents). And she decries Councilwoman Littrell's recent vote against adding two new police positions. (Littrell has argued that adding more positions is futile with a department that can't even staff itself near the levels already authorized, due to low morale and high turnover.)
Trombley is the candidate expressing the strongest differences with Littrell's record. She believes the current City Council has done too little to address police hiring and retention. She criticizes Littrell's push to spend $1.1-$1.6 million for a second swimming pool at the North Shore complex in Old Northeast. "It benefits an elite neighborhood, Virginia's neighborhood," she says.
Distinct among the three candidates, Trombley calls for height restrictions downtown to limit skyscraping condos at 180 feet. She says she wants a downtown that is more Sarasota than Tampa. "I would really like to see St. Petersburg remain a quaint city."
Leslie Curran is bushed from moving her Central Avenue gallery and framing business, even if it was only from next door. It's been a while since she's been on the campaign stump, having left her seat on the City Council eight years ago to challenge (unsuccessfully) Mayor David Fischer.
"It's very quiet compared to when I did this before," says Curran, 49. "It's surprising to me to see the lack of response to the election."
For those with short memories, Curran served two terms as councilwoman, at a time when the Council had a higher profile, if only because it was before the city adopted a strong-mayor form of government. Curran was 32 when she was first elected. She served before the "wild years," when Kathleen Ford held the District 4 seat and the council was known more for its contentiousness than its accomplishments.
"A lot of what is happening downtown is because of the groundwork we laid when I was on the Council," Curran says. Seeing the redevelopment near her own business, Interior Motives, "sort of drew me back into the political realm again."
Curran's platform now mixes support for the kind of things that have created a thriving and bohemian downtown St. Petersburg with an added note of caution.
"A lot of citizens are saying, whoa, are we overdeveloping?" Curran says. Two of her priorities would be to keep downtown pedestrian-friendly and maintain open spaces as much of St. Pete's urban core undergoes redevelopment.
Her main beef with the incumbent? "I think she's seen as mainly a one-issue candidate," that being the preservation of the Old Northeast neighborhood, Curran says.
Virginia Littrell thinks off the many times she has gone out in the middle of the night to respond to an emergency in her district, either at BayWalk or with a resident bothered by noise, as evidence of her role as interface between the public and its government.
"I am the most accessible councilperson in the city of St. Petersburg," Littrell says. "I'm pretty hands-on."
The 55-year-old former executive director of the liberal Florida Consumer Action Network has proven to be a complex and pragmatic council member in her first term, with a voting pattern defying categorization. On one hand, she's supported free speech at BayWalk, opposing "no-protest zones" and actually joining in one of the protests. On the other, she voted to block a proposed settlement with the family of TyRon Lewis, killed in a police shooting. The city won the case, but when Mayor Rick Baker offered to pay for Lewis' son's college education anyway, Littrell was critical of how Baker's settlement would make police officers feel "less respected and less trusted," according to an account in the St. Petersburg Times. She voted against a small tax decrease in 2003 (a position typically taken by liberals) but proposed an ordinance to prohibit streets sales or handouts — mostly by homeless vendors — of newspapers and other median-hawked products (a ban with a more conservative bent). She also opposed forgiving $1 million in back rent to bail out the Florida International Museum.
Surprising if you have a preconceived notion of how a former director of a lefty consumer-rights group would vote, but not unexplainable for a fifth-generation St. Petersburg resident whose maternal grandfather was a council member and who jokingly describes herself as one of the three "liberal Republicans" in the state of Florida.
"My roots go deep here," Littrell says. "I'm not a career politician. I'm the one on the council that asks the difficult questions, even in the face of unpopularity."
For Littrell, the top priority of a second term would be affordable housing for a workforce rapidly being priced out of many St. Petersburg neighborhoods. The solution won't be easy, Littrell says, and could include fees paid by large retailers who create low-paying jobs. "We're all going to have to bite the bullet" to create affordable homes, she says.
Playing the race card in District 6: After last week's column on the other primary election set for September 27 — the race in District 6 south of Central Avenue — an interesting development. I heard from candidate Maria Scruggs-Weston, who was outraged that I'd deemed her a non-contender. Scruggs-Weston lost two previous races: the election for county commission in 2004, in which she carried District 6 with 77 percent of the vote, and a 2001 bid for St. Pete mayor in which she finished sixth in the primary with 3.72 percent of the vote.
She heatedly called our coverage racist and especially biased against African-American women. Scruggs-Weston is black; in the column, I cited two African-American male candidates, Earnest Williams and Dwight Chimurenga Waller, and one white female challenger, Darden Rice, as front-runners.
The next day, Scruggs-Weston was featured in an article in the St. Petersburg Times questioning whether a white person could represent or understand African-Americans in the district, which is 54 percent black. "It's very important that we have candidates that can represent the entire district," she told the Times' Adam C. Smith.
Nothing racist about that, I guess.
Political Whore correction time: He misspelled the name of Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark in a recent column about elections reform. Pretty stupid, considering she was a former political client of his. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or by telephone at 813-739-4805.