Tuesday night’s virtual forum offered St. Petersburg residents the opportunity to hear how city council candidates would address key issues in the city.
The University of South Florida St. Petersburg hosted the forum, and the League of Women Voters was the main sponsor of the virtual event. Judithanne Scourield McLauchlan, founding director of the Center for Civic Engagement at USFSP, moderated while USFSP student government leaders Veronica Jimenez, Tara Rosenbaum and Sean Schrader posed questions to the candidates in two segments.
Segment one featured the District 1 and District 4 candidates, while segment two highlighted the District 6 and District 8 candidates.
Regardless of what district they live in, voters will choose one of the two candidates from each race in the Nov. 2 general election. Copley Gerdes will face Bobbie Shay Lee in the District 1 race, although Lee did not attend the forum. Lisset Hanewicz and Tom Mullins are vying for the District 4 seat. Incumbent Gina Driscoll and Mhariel Summers are running for District 6, and Jeffrey Danner and Richie Floyd are competing in District 8. Incumbent Brandi Gabbard was supposed to face Kyle Hall in District 2, although he has dropped out of the race.
Mullins said one of the first things he would do if elected is protect taxpayers. He noted that St. Pete has one of the highest property tax rates in the state, and the amount of money the city has collected from citizens has nearly doubled over the past eight years. “I want to make sure the taxpayers are getting proper value for that money,” he said.
Mullins, who credited his experience as a senior executive for Raymond James and involvement with some of the largest job creation events in the area as what sets him apart as a candidate, also wants a “do-over” on the Tropicana Field redevelopment plans.
“I think they really need to bring a more transformational concept for that site, that brings its own jobs engine,” said Mullins.
Gerdes said his top priority is investing in the city’s infrastructure. “We have not made the investment over the last four years – we’ve got to make it over the next 10,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re going to have significantly worse problems than we’ve already had.”
Gerdes said his background as a financial advisor will enable him to better navigate citizens and businesses through both good and bad fiscal years and will assist him in balancing the budget. He adds that his experience as a college baseball coach will help him to bring people together around one idea.
“I think that is something we really need on city council these days,” Gerdes said.
Hanewicz said her first priority is addressing the affordable housing crisis. A low supply with high demand and housing costs rising faster than incomes are issues she is eager to tackle. She also mentions the high cost of constructing affordable housing and maintaining an aging house as problems that need to be addressed, and how that ties into the need to upgrade the city’s infrastructure. “That is related to our resiliency and sustainability,” she said.
Hanewicz said her experience as a former state and federal prosecutor would help the community, which has been her focus since 2016. “All the work that I’ve already been doing in the community, I would love to continue that work on the city council,” she said.
Summers said that she is uniquely qualified to serve District 6 due to her “lifetime of experience bridging gaps in our community.” She adds that for the last five years she has worked under Congressman Charlie Crist, Senator Daryl Rouson and Representative Michelle Rayner. Summers said she is the only candidate in the district with a college degree, much less a degree in political science with a minor in entrepreneurship.
“You want to elect someone who has relationships with stakeholders,” said Summers. “Who can reach across the aisle – not join the other side – but stand true to our principles, be democratic, and get things done.”
Danner said his top priority would also be affordable housing and thinks the city does well to secure county, state, and federal grants for housing programs. However, he feels the city should have its own revenue sources, such as a housing trust fund with “strings attached” that would only go towards specific cases like veterans and families. He also wants to address crime, is a “big supporter” of community policing, and feels that young people need to realize that “police aren’t always the bad guys.”
“And then just development in general,” said Danner. “We need to balance the development, take advantage of it, but not lose the character of our city in the process.”
In addition to affordable housing, Driscoll said continued infrastructure improvements will be a focus if reelected. She wants to ensure strong sewer systems, strong water resources, and a strong stormwater system. She realizes they “are not cheap, and they’re not overnight, but we have been making great progress, and I’ll continue to work on that …”
“And then, of course, economic development,” added Driscoll. “Not only helping our small businesses but making sure that everyone in our city has the opportunity to find a job that can pay the bills so that we can all thrive and keep moving forward together.”
Floyd said that first and foremost, he wants to focus on making a city that works for everyone, with an economy that works for everyone. He believes affordable housing is at the core of that idea, but it is not entirely about new developments and subsidizing private properties. He would like the city to take housing out of the marketplace and institute land trust investments for improved public and social housing.
“But we can’t detach that from the fact that we need to help raise wages for people in the city, and we need to make sure we’re doing it in a way that’s not displacing people,” added Floyd. “And finally, we need to make sure we can correct a lot of the inequity in the city that we’ve known for so long … because the city is more than just downtown.”