To the outside world, Gulfport is a charming waterfront community with quaint restaurants, popular street festivals, and a mod mayor who tends bar and sings in a rock band.
The south Pinellas town of 12,000 is also home to the Stetson University College of Law, a picturesque marina, and a gated waterfront neighborhood and country club.
And then there’s Ward 4. Bordered on the north by the Pinellas Trail and on the south by 22nd Avenue S. (Gulfport Boulevard), running west from 49th to 58th streets, it’s a primarily residential neighborhood that doesn’t offer much to visitors. Because of its lower profile, some of its residents feel like out-of-favor relatives at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
They describe themselves as the red-headed stepchild of the city. The neighborhood with an inferiority complex. The home of the 99 percent. The only ward without a catchy nickname like “marina district.”
Michael Fridovich, who has represented Ward 4 on the Gulfport City Council since 2013, says the city has spent $1,520,269 in his district over the last four years. But he has three opponents in the March 14 election, and all three contend Fridovich has not done enough.
There’s Richard Fried (pronounced “freed as in freedom,” he says), a self-proclaimed Bernie Sanders-style activist who once wore an elf costume to a council meeting and appeared at a candidate forum on Feb. 2 in an orange T-shirt and black fedora.
There’s Bobby Reynolds, a military brat and Navy veteran who graduated from Stetson Law and works for a Largo security company. The low-key Reynolds notes that many people “would probably recognize me as the guy walking the boxer [around town]. His name is Raiden.”
And there’s Ernest Stone, a former ambulance driver, police dispatcher and Stetson security officer who is now retired. He has lived in Gulfport for 40 years.
No candidate is harder on the incumbent than Stone, who points to photos of broken fences and derelict houses and says, “I just don’t see him [Fridovich] getting anything done.”
And no candidate has a background with more smudges — or an explanation more unusual — than Stone.
According to Pinellas County court records, Stone, 69, had several brushes with the law in the 1980s and 1990s. They included arrests for disorderly intoxication and resisting arrest without violence in 1980 (which resulted in six months’ probation and a fine) and DUI and misdemeanor criminal mischief in 1985 (10 days in jail, six months’ probation and a fine).
He was also arrested — but not prosecuted — on charges of misdemeanor spouse battery and aggravated assault in 1990 and misdemeanor domestic-related assault in 1995.
When Stone was asked about his record during an interview on Feb. 20, his wife, Pamela Ann Stone, broke into the conversation.
“For most of my life, I have suffered from bipolar illness,” she said. “I’ve struck my children, I’ve struck my husband, and Ern took the fall when the police were called. He didn’t want the mother of his children to have that on my record.”
The Stones have two sons, one a police commander in Gulfport and the other a security officer at Tyrone Square Mall. Mrs. Stone also has two other children, one of whom Stone helped raise.
In two interviews, Mrs. Stone, 68, said she has publicly acknowledged her mental illness. But she said this is the first time she has identified it as bipolar disorder — a manic depressive illness that can cause unpredictable changes in mood and behavior.
She and Ernest have been married for 46 years. At times during the marriage, “I was difficult, but he never hit me,” said Mrs. Stone. “If he would have hit me, I would have killed him.”
According to court records, Mrs. Stone was charged with misdemeanor battery in 1987, felony aggravated assault in 1995 and domestic battery in 1997. Two of the incidents involved one of her sons; the third involved a neighbor, she said. All three charges were dropped.
Mrs. Stone said she is now under the care of a psychiatrist and on medications that have dramatically improved her life.
It is liberating to talk about her illness now, she said. She and her family have a better understanding of things, she said, and she wants others to know how supportive her husband has been.
“I’m a big girl now and can face it,” she said. “I don’t want him [her husband] dragged through the mud when he stood by me all this time… I am very pleased with the person I am today, and I thank Ern for that.”
Ernest Stone’s boss at Stetson was its chief of public safety, Don W. Howard. The school was aware of Stone’s record when it hired him as a security officer, Howard said.
“We all make mistakes and we can’t allow our mistakes to define us,” said Howard. He called Stone “a truly decent Christian man” with “a deep and abiding love for this community.”
As the campaign enters its final days, the incumbent — Fridovich — seems well-positioned for a strong showing.
He has been on the council and a fixture at community events for four years. His campaign signs dot the district, and he has been endorsed by Mayor Sam Henderson and former mayors Michael Yakes and Yvonne Johnson.
Fridovich, 69, is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and graduate of Georgia State University. He draws income from Social Security and disability payments and a part-time job as a telephone salesman.
In his campaign, he stresses the $1,520,269 he says the city has spent in Ward 4 during his four years in office — proof that he has delivered.
“Anyone who says that he hasn’t done anything for Ward 4 hasn’t been paying attention at the council meetings,” said Henderson.
But Reynolds, 49, disputes that positive assessment of the incumbent. He says Fridovich stepped it up only after deciding to seek a third term.
Exhibit A, said Reynolds, is the city park near his home. Improvements there are finally underway, Reynolds said, but “they should’ve been done earlier.”
“Ward 4 needs help,” Reynolds told The Gabber, a weekly newspaper that serves Gulfport. “It doesn’t need ‘tweaking.’ It doesn’t need a ‘team player.’ It needs someone who will truly advocate for its residents.”
He calls for consistent code enforcement, improvements in infrastructure, vigilance on spending and better communication between City Hall and the people it serves.
Reynolds, a Navy veteran, has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a law degree from Stetson. He and his wife have three small children.
Stone, a retiree and 40-year resident of Gulfport, says he has the time and experience to represent Ward 4 effectively.
“Serving the People” is his campaign pledge. He calls for improving the city’s infrastructure, consistent enforcement of codes, careful spending, and improved parking options along the beachfront.
The police department should use its patrol boat more often, he said, and the city should add another code enforcement officer.
“I’ve got ears; I listen. I’ve got a mouth; I talk,” he said. “If you’ve got a problem, then bring it to me.”
Fried, 51, the most colorful candidate in the field, appears to face the longest odds.
The election of Donald Trump helped propel him into the race, said Fried, who calls himself “a Bernie Sanders kind of guy.”
“I’ve elected to run [for office], not protest,” he said.
He lists his duplex and a job at a St. Petersburg assisted living facility as his sources of income. He said he has attended Pinellas Technical College, the University of Southern Maine, Florida International University and Miami Dade College.
Fried calls for solar power on all city buildings, tighter oversight on city spending and staff, and more authority for the office of mayor, which is a largely ceremonial position.
Fried frequently speaks at City Council meetings, but Mayor Henderson said some of his remarks — while passionate — are not factual. “His comments at the podium make me think he is unqualified,” Henderson said.
And there is this: According to records in the Pinellas County supervisor of elections office, Fried has never voted in a Gulfport municipal election. He says that is incorrect; he remembers voting in last year’s race for mayor.
As president of the Gulfport Democratic Club and a former unsuccessful council candidate in another ward, April Thanos follows community politics closely. She says the four-way competition in Ward 4 is good for the city.
“It makes people talk about things and think about things,” she said.
The housing stock in Ward 4 is “not that different” from other neighborhoods, she said, and she sees “people coming in and fixing things up very rapidly.”
The City Council and city administration have not always treated Ward 4 as well as other districts, Thanos said, and the people who live there “need to stand up for themselves.”
That goes, she said, for their council member, too.
Devin Rodriguez, Ryan Callihan and Tyler Gillespie are student journalists at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Information from The Gabber, a community weekly that serves Gulfport, was used in this report.