It's a little after 6:30 p.m. on one of the first chilly nights of the fall when Tampa City Council candidate Kelly Benjamin shows up at the Refinery's upstairs bar. He's wearing a sportscoat and carrying a bicycle tire, which he hands off to a bartender. (His vintage Raleigh 10-speed is parked below.) He orders a craft beer and we head to the deck, which is already crowded with young couples beginning their weekend.
The Refinery, like Ella's and The Independent, has become a popular fixture in Seminole Heights over the last year. The restaurants, along with The Front Porch and Cappy's, have succeeded in giving one of Tampa's most dynamic neighborhoods the sort of food and drink establishments residents have been demanding for years, but have had a hard time getting constructed.
"When these people went before the City Council and talked about getting a beer and wine license, the current representative [Charlie Miranda] said, 'Well, I don't think people really want to get a beer after midnight.' You know, that's the kind of mindset that sometimes pervades here," Benjamin says. "When I go door to door and talk to people in all these neighborhoods, they're dying for it. They want places that are walkable, that they can take their kids to, that can be a neighborhood hangout, to go and enjoy a game on TV and have beer or sit at dinner."
(Refinery co-owner and chef Greg Baker says the biggest obstacle in getting his business started was "inflexibility and inefficiency with every aspect of the city's growth management office.")
Benjamin is just getting warmed up. Over the next 90 minutes (during which he barely touches his beer) he gives me his vision of what Tampa could be, echoing sentiments I've heard from other forward-thinking city residents over the last decade. With all seven City Council seats up for election next March, a host of candidates have already entered the race, with others soon to come.
Tampa's progressive community lost two stalwarts when John Dingfelder and Linda Saul-Sena had to leave their Council seats literally overnight after paperwork miscues threatened their candidacies for the Hillsborough County Commission. Now they're pinning their hopes on several possible replacements.
Candidates like Julie Jenkins, Sara Romeo and Seth Nelson are all calling for Tampa to be more dynamic in the 21st century. But while all bring distinct resumes with them, none can boast, if that's the term, of having dodged rubber-coated steel bullets at a free trade summit in Miami, or of getting arrested for protesting at the 2008 Republican National Convention.
Kelly Benjamin can.
Last week, the 35-year-old turned in more than the 700 petitions needed to qualify as a candidate for the District 6 race. Incumbent Charlie Miranda has yet to announce officially whether he will be running and did not return a call by CL for comment, but he did tell the Tampa Tribune he will run (though perhaps not in District 6). It's Benjamin's second go-round for elective office, after getting blown out in a challenge to Rose Ferlita in 2003. But he says this time it's for real.
Currently Benjamin makes a living as an English tutor and home renovator. He also works as a volunteer news reporter for WMNF radio and in the past has contributed to CL (in its current incarnation and when it was Weekly Planet). His recent radio work has blended well with his role as an activist; next month he'll be traveling to Mexico to cover the U.N. Climate Change Summit for Earth Journalism News (he attended last year's summit in Copenhagen for WMNF and CL).
He calls himself a media activist, helping co found 87X, a low-powered radio station in Ybor City in the late 1990s. He's been zealously attending major protests since covering the 2000 Democratic and Republican conventions for the Indy media website and the Weekly Planet.
When WMNF named him a recipient of the station's second annual peace awards last August, the citation mentioned his brush with bullets and tear gas at the FTAA Summit and his arrest at the Republican convention. When asked what has led him to participate in such events, he says it's part of his quest to understand "the struggle for a more genuine democracy."
His international activism impresses some people, but others wonder whether local issues and incremental changes can keep his interest, especially since Tampa's strong mayor form of government sometimes prevents the seven-member City Council from having significant impact on policy.
Benjamin is sensitive to the charge that he's more interested in world news than making changes at the micro level. He mentions his work with the Community Stepping Stones program in Sulphur Springs, organizing cleanups at Epps Park in Seminole Heights and even a book exchange on a corner near his house. He's especially interested in community gardens, a national phenomenon throughout the country in recent years, including St. Petersburg, but not in Tampa.
A fifth-generation Tampa native with deep roots in the community — his great-great grandfather, George Nelson Benjamin, was West Tampa's second mayor — Benjamin currently lives in Seminole Heights with his girlfriend.
But this is a man who's lived in New York City, Barcelona and Buenos Aires. Is he really ready to sit behind a dais for hours on end on a Thursday night to rule on wet zoning in SoHo?
Benjamin says he knows exactly what he's getting into. "The City Council is in many ways a zoning board that passes ordinances and regulations. So I'm realistic about the power of one single member among seven members," he says. "But I think ultimately we have the power to begin a dialogue on issues that neighborhoods and communities are already beginning to feel, and that many communities are craving."
Benjamin appreciates what Mayor Iorio has accomplished, especially her advocacy for transit, but he wishes she would push more for international trade.
"Tampa really needs a kick in the ass," he says, "and we can't sit around and wait anymore for things to happen." He says that the younger people in Tampa who choose to hang around after attending college need to see a city prepared for the challenges of a global economy in the early 21st century.
"Look, if you're happy the way things are going, then let's continue along that good-ole-boy network – that model has built our environment. I'm not happy with it. And I think a lot of people are frustrated by it. I think having somebody like me on the Council, we'll begin to create the dialogue that is gonna spur the kind of changes that I think are inevitable. What I'd like to do is quicken the pace."
UPDATE: After this story was posted online, Kelly Benjamin called us and objected to parts of the story.
Although we accurately wrote that he has called himself a media activist, he stresses that all of the events he’s been to over the last decade, he never went with the intention of protesting, but simply to cover such events. “I haven’t protested, I never held a sign up,” he said Thursday morning. “I reported on the events happening in the streets, but I don’t ‘do’ any protests. When I started covering anti-globalization protests and things of that nature, I was always interested in the dynamics of activism and how it manifests itself.”
As we noted above, Benjamin was arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention, but those charges have been dropped. He says he’s now involved in a lawsuit resulting from that arrest, because his civil rights were violated. “I wasn’t just protesting in the streets and got arrested….they have mass arrests …I didn’t do anything wrong….the facts show that..they dropped all of the charges, and now I’m the one who’s suing them for damages. It is damaging to my reputation…people associate when you get arrested, this guy has some sort of criminal record, look at these facts.”