Even as Trump factor offers fodder, Pinellas House Dem candidates skip Tiger Bay forum

click to enlarge Jennifer Webb, Democratic challenger to State Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, for House District 69 — a swing seat — was absent due to a family emergency. - Jennifer Webb campaign
Jennifer Webb campaign
Jennifer Webb, Democratic challenger to State Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, for House District 69 — a swing seat — was absent due to a family emergency.

In a lot of ways, those who serve at the Congressional and state legislative levels have a much more direct impact on daily life than the president. But researching everyone who's on the ballot can be a total slog for the average voter who doesn't want to be a slave to the party line.

That's why it could've been helpful if two of the three Democrats invited to Wednesday's Tiger Bay forum would have shown up to debate their opponents, who are both strong Republican incumbents.

The forum featured candidates for three west Pinellas State House seats, districts 66, 67 and 69, minus Democrat David Vogel, who's running against Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Largo, in 66, and Jennifer Webb, who's Challenging Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, in 69. Lorena Grizzle, who's trying for a second time to unseat Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, was the sole Democrat fielding questions from the crowd as well as moderator and publisher Peter Schorsch, himself something of a Republican booster.

Webb said she had a family emergency that led her out of town (an understandable reason for being absent). Schorsch told the crowd, and Vogel said he didn't like the questions Schorsch asked at another forum — namely two he posed to Joseph Bensmihen, a Republican running for a State House seat in St. Pete and a recent transplant. They were designed to show how well — or not well, actually — he knew the district, but his responses were memorable gaffes: his favorite restaurant on St. Pete's 4th Street was a Chick-fil-A franchise, he said, and he couldn't name the mayor who preceded current St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman.

"[Vogel] said that those questions are not serious," Schorsch said.

Early in the forum, Vogel's absence gave Latvala the opportunity to take shots at Vogel for himself being a recent transplant while playing up his willingness to work across the aisle on things like banning backyard gun ranges.

I put my community above my party,” he said.

And even if the Republican candidates may have had a friend in their moderator, he tends to be pretty even-handed in a forum. Plus, Tiger Bay forums aren't exactly the belly of the beast for Democrats; the club has scant and perhaps only token Republican membership.

The setting allowed Grizzle to draw contrasts between herself and her opponent, Ahern, and may have even prompted him to say things he might not have otherwise said had she not showed up.

Asked which is more detrimental to the state's environment, the St. Pete sewage dump or phosphate giant Mosaic's possible radioactive contamination of the water supply (the answer to which tends to depend on one's party loyalty), Grizzle said the latter and hit her opponent for having taken money from Mosaic.

Our public drinking water safety is one of the least addressed things in the legislature and I intend to change that,” she said.

Her opponent acknowledged that lawmakers need to better scrutinize how the way the phosphate industry stores its waste materials.

She disagreed with the others on Medicaid expansion (which she supports), and drew a sharp contrast with her opponent on gun control, saying banning the sale of assault weapon ammunition "would be a good start" and expressing her all-out opposition to open carry, a perennial proposal the legislature, and something her opponent doesn't not support.

I supported it in committee,” Ahern said, adding that he'd like to “keep my options open” on open carry in Florida.

Latvala, meanwhile, touted his opposition to open carry and joked that he can't wait to see what dismal grade the NRA gives him when they release their next report card.

Peters gave something of a muddled answer, asserting that she doesn't want to modify the Second Amendment by imposing restrictions on gun ownership, and that she doesn't support chipping away at any constitutional amendment. On open carry, though, she said she doesn't want to see people openly carrying guns on beaches.

As with any political forum in 2016, the Trump question came up.

Two of the three Republicans, Ahern and Latvala, voiced their support for the controversial Republican nominee, while Peters declined to publicly endorse anyone for president, opting instead to say state issues are her focus and that her "compassionate conservative" principles will guide her in the voting booth on Election Day.

Ahern was the first one asked about Trump, and members of the crowd hissed in response to his support (though there were a few cheers).

Grizzle, of course, enthusiastically endorsed Hillary Clinton, which sparked cheers (and a few hisses).

All three Democrats in these races face an uphill challenge against a Republican incumbent with name recognition, nearly boundless party support and access to extensive funds, even if some view districts 67 and 69 as vulnerable.

It's unclear how many chances the challengers in each of these races will have to make their case or challenge their opponents' unpopular views, contributions from questionable entities or past legislative activity beyond campaign ads.

But showing up might help.

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