March 15th is Florida's presidential preference primary, yes, but in the small Pinellas seaside town of Gulfport, residents will also be weighing in on whether incumbent Mayor Sam Henderson will hold on to his seat, or if restaurant owner Barbara Banno will take over.
Henderson, who recently received a M.A. and tends bar at the Peninsula Inn on the side, was first elected in 2013 (mayoral terms here are three years; council terms are two).
He says he has accomplished a lot with the help of a largely unified city council in Gulfport, which has a weak-mayor form of government.
“We've had a really booming three years," he said. "And I'm not taking credit, but I've certainly been a part of it. We've recovered from the financial crisis very well, came out on top, property values are rising. And because of that, we're kind of not playing catch-up and having to cut corners to try to get by anymore. We're actually at a point where we're more prosperous than we have been in the last several years. We've been able to get a lot of work done.”
Among what he considers key successes for the city over his first mayoral term, he says, are the launching of a new trails program, a new effort to replace dated sewer infrastructure, accelerating street-paving and improvements to Shore Boulevard within the city's redevelopment district.
But he says there's more he wants to do — hence a run for a second term.
"I don't want to leave these things midstream," Henderson said. "These things are important to me and these things are going to service the community for decades after I'm gone. So I want to do one more term, and see if I can finish things up and leave the city in a really good spot when I exit.”
In a release sent to media Wednesday, Banno, who owns the popular Beach Boulevard restaurant Stella's, touts
having "spearheaded groundbreaking statutes."
As for her motivation to run, she cites an August incident in which workers from neighboring St. Petersburg dumped millions of gallons of sewage into Clam Bayou, an estuarine body of water that sits between the two cities, after intense storms overwhelmed the city's stormwater infrastructure.
“It’s an environmental nightmare,” Banno said in the media release. “There are resources out there we could be utilizing more effectively to say, ‘What are our options to clean this up?’ We need to be more proactive and diligent in protecting our greatest resources.”
Henderson said that while he's not totally satisfied with the way St. Pete has handled the incident, he worries that taking too aggressive an approach, namely one involving litigation, with St. Pete officials would make things worse.
“I thought the best way to handle this was to do the responsible thing; the accountability of my job is to be the person who goes and tries to solve the problem. I felt like collaborating with the offending entity was a good way to go about that," he said.
What he'd like to see, he said, is an agreement between the cities in which each promises to update their infrastructure while taking proper precautions like upgrades and better communication with each other as well as residents.
Banno's campaign insists her desire to be mayor goes beyond wanting quicker action on Clam Bayou. If elected, she also hopes for greater government transparency, an even stronger environment for businesses, and expansion of the Gulfport Marina, as well as action on a range of other issues.
If elected, Banno would be the city's first openly lesbian mayor, which she said she hopes will inspire other LGBT candidates to run for office.
“Many people in the LGBTQ community find it challenging to be in the public eye as a politician for fear of discrimination, and I know my candidacy will help show people there’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said in the media release. “But I want all of Gulfport’s residents to know: I’m ready to stand up for all of you, and my record shows it.”
Gulfport has a relatively high number of LGBT residents, but Henderson said he doesn't think a candidate's sexual orientation is going to matter to most of the city's voters, many of whom are socially active.
“I think they're going to be voting on the issues,” he said. “I've certainly been on the forefront of defending equal rights regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Banno's campaign kickoff is Jan. 9 at Boca Bay Grille, 2834 Beach Blvd. S., at noon.
As for Henderson, he said he's taking the challenge in stride.
“It's always nice to be able to retain your seat unopposed," he said. "I've been lucky enough to able to do that on council before I was the mayor. But it's part of the political process and this is a free country, and Ms. Banno is more than welcome to join the race and I look forward to the campaign.”