In November voters will select between two candidates facing off for the District 6 seat on St. Petersburg City Council: First-term incumbent Gina Driscoll and political newcomer Mhariel Summers, who most recently served as District Secretary for Democratic State Rep. Michele Rayner.
With less than 50 days until the general election, Driscoll has snagged endorsements from several of her colleagues on City Council, including Darden Rice, Ed Montinari, and Robert Blackmon (who is currently running for Mayor).
“Gina Driscoll has built a reputation for inclusive, collaborative leadership to move St Petersburg forward. That's why I'm endorsing her re-election to City Council," Rice said in a news release. "From affordable housing and food security to COVID response and infrastructure investment, Gina is always looking out for our residents and creating a stronger city. I would encourage all St. Pete voters to learn more about her advocacy for our city.”
But Summers, who filed to run one week before the end of the qualifying period in June, has also gotten two key endorsements from Driscoll’s colleagues on council.
In just the last month, Deborah Figgs-Sanders of District 5, and most recently Lisa Wheeler-Bowman of District 7 both rolled out their own endorsements for Summers, a Black millennial candidate whose platform is centered around advancing economic opportunity and visible equity for her district.
“Right now our citizens are looking for answers on affordable housing and public safety. I’m endorsing Mhariel Summers for District 6 because I believe our city needs leaders who can compassionately and comprehensively grasp the opportunities that lay ahead,” said Wheeler-Bowman, in an endorsement provided exclusively to Creative Loafing Tampa Bay ahead of a news release. “Mhariel understands the challenges that the most vulnerable residents face and will be an asset in moving our community forward as a Council Member.”
It’s notable that two of Driscoll’s colleagues have endorsed her challenger, particularly since Summers’ campaign has thus far received little fanfare or media attention. The District 6 race did not appear on the primary ballot in August, but will be on the ballot for voters across the city for the general election.
CL recently sat down with Summers to discuss her campaign and, more specifically, what drove her to challenge council member Driscoll, a first-term City Council member, for the District 6 seat.
Trust the process
Running for city office, Summers admitted, wasn’t part of her original plan. Raised in St. Pete and a graduate of the Pinellas County school system, Summers began working straight out of high school, first in sales. She worked for Walmart, T-Mobile, and eventually got a good gig working for Aaron’s, a rent-to-own furniture store.
Then, Summers’ partner, a woman she had been with at the time, was accepted into a program at the University of Colorado in Boulder. It was 2013. Both were in their 20s. With the opportunity for Summers to transfer to an Aaron’s store there, they figured, “We’re young. Why not?”
The two moved to Denver, Colorado, less than 50 miles from UC Boulder. And within just two years at the Denver store, Summers landed a store manager position. “I’m 24 years-old on a salary of about $62,000 a year, and I’m feeling like, I did it,” Summers recalled. She was happy. She’d made it—even without a college education.
But then, there was Black Lives Matter. The high-profile police murders of Black people across the United States that not only made it into the news cycle, but shined a spotlight on the intersections of police violence, racial injustice, the war on drugs, and class struggle. The deaths of people like Eric Garner in New York City. Mike Brown in Ferguson. Freddie Gray in Baltimore. And Sandra Bland in Texas.
Summers argued with folks on social media about the killings. But she knew it wasn’t enough. “It was at that period of my life where I realized that, you know, my opinion alone wouldn't help me make a difference in these things that are so important to me,” said Summers.
In 2016, she moved back home. Back to her roots. Born at Blake Medical Center in Manatee County, Summers grew up in St. Pete. She comes from a middle-class background, born to two parents who she described to CL as blue-collar, hard-working people, “Not activists or anything.”
With their support, Summers decided to go back to school, first studying at St. Petersburg College, then transferring to the University of South Florida (USF) St. Pete. There, she majored in Political Science, with a minor in entrepreneurship.
“Understanding the system was the reason I went back to school,” said Summers. “You know, is the system broken? Or is it that we’re not utilizing it properly?”
While studying, she interned at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. She worked with One Community, an initiative for advancing economic growth in south St. Pete. Her primary source of income at the time came from working back of house at Ruth’s Chris Steak House as a chef.
Studying political science wasn’t what she saw as her pathway to elected office. But she did want to learn more about the local political landscape while continuing to find ways to become more active in the community. In the last several years, Summers interned for Democratic State Senator Darryl Rouson, and worked on the campaigns of Phillip Levine for Governor in 2018, then Charlie Crist’s re-election campaign in 2020 as their Black Engagement Coordinator.
Most recently, Summers worked as District Secretary for Michele Rayner, a Democratic State Representative and civil rights attorney who’s currently running for Crist’s U.S. House seat for 2022. Last year, Rayner became the first openly queer Black woman elected to the Florida legislature—a historic victory.
Summers wants to follow Rayner’s lead, and that of other community leaders, for whom she has a deep respect. “I’m running to be a true champion for equity on our City Council,” Summers told CL. About 40% of residents in her district, she said, are Black. And people south of Central Avenue, she added—particularly in the area’s poorer neighborhoods—they don’t want to elect people to office who don’t make a difference.
While people north of Central started talking more seriously about issues such as equity and racial discrimination in the wake of George Floyd, people further to the South have been talking about these issues for decades, said Summers.
Similar, and different
First elected to city office in 2017, incumbent Gina Driscoll is running on a platform that seeks to address unaffordable housing, creating a stronger support system for small businesses, increased mobility and educational options, and environmental protection, according to her website.
Like Summers, she touts her presence in the community, as a board member of the St. Pete Downtown Neighborhood Association and Downtown Business Association, and a member of various other community groups. She’s also backed by organized labor, with endorsements from the AFL-CIO’s West Central Florida Labor Council, the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters Local 747, and the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Sen. Rouson, both of whom Summers previously worked under, have also endorsed Driscoll’s re-election campaign.
But Summers believes her years of advocacy alongside community leaders, particularly key stakeholders in St. Pete’s Black community, make her uniquely qualified to help advance growth that is inclusive and equitable.
She wants to address the racial and economic disparities in her district—and ensure that the city’s growth and economic recovery from COVID-19, extends to all residents of St. Pete, particularly those on the south side.
Show me the money
To accomplish this, District 6 needs an elected city official who won’t take directives from developers or special interests, Summers said, but from the people.
According to campaign finance records, Driscoll has received more than $100,000 in campaign contribution this year—including thousands of dollars from real estate developers, and single donations ranging from $500-$1,000 from organizations that have endorsed her campaign, such as the Florida Realtors, Ruth’s List Florida, Emily’s List, and Florida NOW.
Summers, on the other hand, has received just under $8,000 in monetary contributions to date, including a $400 donation from the Pinellas Stonewall PAC.
Although the race is nonpartisan, both Driscoll and Summers are registered Democrats. Candidly, Summers told CL she identifies as a centrist, moderate, and “capitalist at heart.”
She believes the city needs a leader who will do their own due diligence in trying to understand the plight of marginalized people, and invest in their needs.
That’s where she believes those who’ve endorsed her campaign—like council members Figgs-Sanders, Wheeler-Bowman, and Pinellas County commissioner Rene Flowers—see her potential, as leaders who have worked with Summers directly in the community. “[They know] that my heart is with our people who are vulnerable, who need someone to advocate on their behalf,” she told CL.
It was important to Summers to seek input from key stakeholders in the city before tossing her hat in the ring. People she’d worked for and with. Elected officials, business leaders, organization heads. Those she trusted to be frank, and offer informed guidance on whether she had a shot—and if she was the right person to take it.
She recalls the feedback she received as overwhelmingly positive. “That kind of reinforced, like, my confidence for deciding to do this now,” said Summers. “But ultimately,” she added, “Our current Councilwoman did not deserve to walk back into office unchallenged.”
General Election Day for St. Petersburg’s Municipal Election is Nov. 2. Here’s information on what you can expect to see on the ballot, as well as answers to frequently asked questions about the upcoming election.
Send anonymous news tips to [email protected]. Support local journalism in these crazy days. Our small but mighty team works tirelessly to bring you news on how coronavirus is affecting Tampa and surrounding areas. Please consider making a one time or monthly donation to help support our staff. Every little bit helps.
Subscribe to our newsletter and follow @cl_tampabay on Twitter.