Potential challengers looking to flip the seat currently held by Rep. Charlie Crist took the Zoom stage Wednesday afternoon for the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club’s virtual candidate forum.
The Congressional District 13 candidate forum presented an opportunity for the Republican candidates to come together in one place, in an election season which has been flipped upside down due to COVID-19. There are currently five candidates vying for the Republican nomination: George Buck, Amanda Makki, Sheila Griffin, Sharon Barry Newby and Anna Paulina Luna. The candidates will compete in the primary Aug. 18 to face Crist in the general election Nov. 3. District 13 encompasses most of Pinellas County.
Amanda Makki, who has emerged as the front runner in the race, both in fundraising and endorsements, describes herself as a lawyer, patient advocate, public servant and a lifelong Republican. She has so far out-raised the rest of the field with $747,206 in contributions through March. She has also won the endorsements of top Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise.
Makki is an Iranian-American who came to the United States when she was 11 months old. As a native speaker of Farsi, Makki was an appointee of the George W. Bush Administration as the Army General Counsel at the Pentagon. She also worked for a decade lobbying for the pharmaceuticals industry in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
Buck, the party’s nominee in 2018, has raised $612,000, but lost the support of the Republican party for the 2020 election season due to the racially charged and incendiary rhetoric of a campaign email, in which he indicated that Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar was a “traitor.” The email also stated, “We should hang these traitors where they stand.”
Buck is a retired and disabled veteran/firefighter, who has worked in counter-terrorism, emergency service and disaster management. He helped to create the Fire Science Program at St. Petersburg College and the Disaster Management Program at University of South Florida.
Griffin, who previously ran for St. Petersburg City Council against Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, then Lisa Wheeler-Brown, is a former lawyer and president of Pinellas Suncoast Black Republicans.
Newby is self-described political outsider advocating for far-right conservative values. According to her website, Newby is a 42-year resident and business owner in Pinellas County. Newby said she is self-funding her campaign.
Paulina Luna, who describes herself as a proud Hispanic-American of Mexican descent, is a veteran of the United States Air Force and the Air National Guard. She currently serves as the Chairwoman of Hispanic Initiatives at PragerU. According to her website, Luna has appeared on numerous conservative outlets, including Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, NEWSMAX TV, One American News Network, BlazeTV and The Daily Caller.
Each of the candidates, aside from Paulina Luna, who pulled out of the forum last minute, joined the Tiger Bay forum to explain why they are the best candidate to defeat Crist and to discuss the issues of the day, including COVID-19 and the protests that have grown both locally and nationally following the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis Police.
The first question asked by moderator Adam Smith, political strategist and former Tampa Bay Times political editor, centered around the protests against police brutality. He asked for each of the candidates’ take on law enforcement, systemic inequality and Black Lives Matter.
Newby, who was first to answer, said the death of Floyd was due to “a few bad apples” and that it should serve as an “indictment of that city,” which she believes did not properly train its police officers.
She expressed sympathy for police officers across the country, stating, “When I see police having to put on riot gear, I think they should be treated the same as the military that goes into a war zone. Those boys are paid hostile fire pay.”
“Nobody should have to take a bullet to do their job. This has to stop and being soft on it is not going to get the results we want. We must have order in this country. We must have justice, these people must be accountable for the things they’ve done wrong, there’s no question about that.”
Newby referred to rioting as “disgusting” and said it is destroying the tax base that would create revenues to fund programs people are asking for.
Makki said what happened to George Floyd is “wrong as wrong can be,” and said the case must be investigated. But she took a business-centered approach to discussing the protests and riots.
“When you look at businesses, 40,000 businesses affected, larceny, arson … These are things we cannot tolerate as a society,” Makki said. She referred to the police offers involved in George Floyd’s death as a “few bad actors” and called for order.
“Taking this to the level that it’s come to, it’s very scary for our country,” she said. “National monuments desecrated and graffiti’d, when do we allow for this lawlessness? We are a country of laws, if nothing, we are a country of laws.”
Makki also said that she believed calls to defund the police are “anti-American.”
“I can’t even imagine for a second that we have come to a point where we want to defund our police,” she said.
Griffin, the only Black candidate vying for the seat, said she believes that many of the other candidates were conflating Black Lives Matter with riots and protests. She said the major issue involved in the civil unrest seen across the nation is pain, and a cry for help.
“America has a history of ignoring pain of individuals of different sects, not just African Americans. We have a history of ignoring and then being surprised when a wound has festered, has not been cleansed … I am concerned that we don’t listen,” she said.
“I’m concerned that the incident that happened to Mr. Floyd had nothing to do with just that incident. If you track the history related to that region, how many people were arrested, how many people were beaten, how many things go unsolved … It had to do with what it looks like for a whole community to be intimidated all of the time.”
She went on to say that the unrest is much bigger than Floyd’s death and connected it to systemic issues, such as the way cities across America built interstates through prosperous black communities, including St. Petersburg’s own 22nd St. South and the Gas Plant District, thriving African American neighborhoods the former bisected and latter razed by the interstates. The Gas Plant District later became the home to Tropicana Field, not the good-paying manufacturing jobs that the African American community was promised.
“When America built her interstates, she took out every place that there was great economic value like here on 22nd Street in St. Petersburg, that was wiped out. They promised that the interstate would not cut through those 40-some businesses but it did,” Griffin explained. “It did in Tampa, it did in Miami, it did in Jacksonville. So when you’re looking at African Americans, most people do not understand why they are not prospering, it’s systemic because it is planned.”
Griffin said that the pain associated with displacement and oppression is an experience shared from city to city, which is why the marches and protests have spread across the country.
“What I would propose is that the conversation talks about the systems. Systems have building blocks and they should have ways for people to enter them and to do so peacefully and they also should have a way to let people express how they feel … I am for every legal action against every illegal abuse of power, and I think all of us should be agreed the same,” she said.
Buck lumped Black Lives Matter and Antifa together, saying that he has “good intelligence” that radical groups, both domestic and international, have money coming in from outside of the county and from prominent Democratic funder George Soros. This theory, which has spread through support from President Donald Trump, has been widely debunked.
“What’s going on in Congress is a disgrace,” Buck said. ‘They’re kneeling and passing police reform nation-wide on a blanket solution that’s not going to work. Podunk nowhere does not have the same problems as New York City,” he said.
Each of the candidates said they would be proud to campaign with Trump and lauded his performance over the last three years, as well as his handing of the economy and COVID-19.
Griffin, who was the only one to say that Trump was not her primary candidate, said there are things she does not like about “tone and vernacular,” but that she’s pleased to see where funding has gone under his administration.
“I’m tracking the hands,” she said. “My grandmama told me, ‘Baby don’t pay any interest to their mouths, follow their hands. Follow the money.’ And the money right now is going to actually help America.”
The candidates also had positive words about Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic, as well as his “last to close, first to open” approach to COVID-19 mitigation efforts and reopening.
When asked about each of their top priorities, if elected, Makki said her top priority would be infrastructure to handle the growth that Pinellas County is projected to see in the coming years. Makki also said she would be willing to work across the aisle to make those infrastructure projects a reality.
Both Griffin and Buck emphasized quality education throughout the district. Buck also said that the environment would be a major issue for him, if elected.
Newby took a different tack, stating that her biggest priority would be civics lessons taught in school. She also said she would like to see school teachers required to take an “oath of allegiance to this country.”