All eight candidates vying to be the next mayor of St. Petersburg participated in a live forum Monday night, with a format designed to let the invited audience and viewers of the livestreamed event get to know the contenders on a more personal level than an earlier debate.
“We’re not going to pit candidates against one another in a duel for the best soundbite, rather we will get to know each candidate, one by one, for 15 minutes…,” said moderator Kelly Kirschner, Vice President and Dean of Executive and Continuing Education at Eckerd College.
In fact, the only person to have criticism lobbed their way seemed to be outgoing Mayor Rick Kriseman.
When asked about climate change and the city’s Coastal High Hazard Area, fellow Democrat and city councilmember Darden Rice said that the city needs to do a better job of incentivizing the type of building and the type of buildings they want and build in a different area.
“Mayor Kriseman really pushed hard for the Coastal High Hazard, and as a member of city council I worked with him – he’ll take the first deal on the table,” said Rice. “You push back, and we work for it to get a little bit better and a little bit better.”
Minutes later, when Rice was asked how she planned to work with the Republican majority in Tallahassee to benefit the city, she said that she takes bipartisanship seriously. Almost every candidate assured voters that they would do more to work across the aisle than the current administration.
“… All I really need to know is whether you love St. Pete and you want our city to do better, and I don’t care what the letter is next to your name,” said Rice. “And I’m not going to be tweeting insults at the governor – who I’m going to have ask for help the next time we get hit with a tragedy.”
The final question for all candidates was their thoughts on the last eight years of the Kriseman administration, and what they believe he has done well and where they believe he fell short. Like many candidates, Pete Boland, a restaurateur and one of two Republicans in the race, called it “a mixed bag.”
He credited Kriseman getting the new Pier done, building a new police station, and making the city more inclusive as things that he would like to “honor and appreciate.” However, he lamented the “hyper-partisan nature where they are more worried about headlines than the people of St. Pete.”
“Most of all we just have to put St. Pete first, and that’s what I would like to see different,” said Boland, reiterating his campaign motto.
Another hot topic in the city, as well as in the forum, is how the candidates would address the rising cost of living and a shortage of affordable housing.
City Council member and real estate investor Robert Blackmon, the other registered Republican running in the nonpartisan contest, separated himself by saying that he would buy a mixed portfolio of condos that are older housing stock, and give them away to people making less than 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI).
“It would be cheaper than buying new, and you’d have mixed income communities,” said Blackmon.
Blackmon adds that the city is currently incentivizing 120% AMI housing, which is the equivalent of making around 60 thousand dollars in annual salary.
“There’s a big difference between someone that is making 60 grand and someone who is experiencing homelessness,” said Blackmon. “And that’s a gulf we need to solve.”
Ken Welch touts his experience as Pinellas County Commissioner in making him qualified to tackle the affordable housing problem. Welch said that he will focus on building housing for people that make 80% of the AMI and less, which comes to around $19 an hour and under.
“We put more than 4,000 units on the ground …,” said Welch. “We have to be intentional about putting those new units on the ground and drawing down our resources.”
Michael Ingram, a political science major at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and by far the youngest candidate at 20 years old, said that most new developments in the city – such as the myriad of new high rises – are far out of the reach of the average citizen.
“They’re priced out of the range of anyone under the probably 80th percentile,” said Ingram. “We need to be looking at new developments that are creating new housing that is affordable – properly affordable – by someone making the median salary or making two dollars over minimum wage.”
All of the candidates said that the redevelopment of Tropicana Field should be left with the incoming mayor. What sets former St. Petersburg city councilmember and state legislator Wengay Newton apart is his emphasis on keeping the Rays in St. Pete. Also, he took a minute to reflect on what that area once meant to the Black community.
“We could also try to repay some of the damage that was done,” said Newton. “If you don’t know, that was Black Wall Street and 85% of every dollar that came from Black businesses was taken from that community.”
Local business owner Marcile Powers suggested the entire city get a say in large projects like the redevelopment of Tropicana Field.
“I don’t believe large decision like the Tropicana Field and (the) marina need to be left up to one person or even a board,” said Powers. “It needs to be a city wide referendum vote for the final plans.”
Torry Nelson, a St. Pete native and the last to enter the race just hours before the deadline, is a virtual unknown but said that one important thing differentiates himself from the other candidates; “I have a heart,” he said.
The video of Monday’s forum, co-sponsored by the Catalyst, will be posted here soon. Watch this space.