The 2021 St. Pete mayoral candidates were faced with hot topic questions during the first mayoral debate Tuesday.
The Tampa Bay Times and Spectrum Bay News 9 partnered to host the live debate, moderated by Times Political Editor Steve Contorno and Bay News 9 Anchor Holly Gregory.
The mayoral candidates include City Councilmember Darden Rice, City Councilmember Robert Blackmon, former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, local business owner Pete Boland, former City Councilmember and state Rep. Wengay Newton, Torry Nelson, former political operative and marketer Marcile Powers, University of South Florida political science student Michael Ingram and former congressional write-in candidate Michael Levinson.
These were the highlights of the responses from the debate. The responses have been edited for clarity.
On sustaining a Major League Baseball team and working with the Rays
Boland: As a season ticket holder for the Rays and other teams, (I believe) the Rays are iconic in St. Pete. They are the origin catalyst for the downtown renaissance. We went through a lot of pain and suffering removing the Gas Plant District neighborhood. My view is that we will build the first new generation of stadiums.
Ingram: Before we start negotiations with the Rays, we need to weigh out the lawsuit pending against the owner. We don’t know who will be the person to negotiate with, and a split team with Montreal isn’t beneficial for the stadium for it to be used half the time. Lastly, St. Pete needs to balance what it’s spending with the Rays and what will be invested back.
Nelson: As an ex-professional athlete, I can relate to them. I’d have to look more into the logistics to keep them here. Maybe we need to give the Rays a little help.
Newton: We should keep the Rays here. I want to bring the council to the table to make sure we have what’s best for taxpayers. If the stadium was moved and we had a split season with Montreal, I’d support that. Our name would have to be on the new stadium.
Powers: It’s obvious St. Pete is growing, which means more fans, and they are going to want to stay here. There’s a lot of walkability issues with the stadium – it’s a concrete jungle. It would be great to have some landscape around the stadium, adding more green space to the stadium. I think we have one of the ugliest stadiums.
Rice: I am a Rays and Rowdies fan. I do want them to stay and want to see what that takes. As mayor, I’d put our city first. I’d certainly work to collaborate with them, hear what they want with the two-city deal and see if this is something the public wants to do and if this could be something worked out.
Welch: I certainly believe the Rays can stay. The reality is the Trop Field is a once-in-generation opportunity and it needs to be intentional to reflects our values. The Rays are part of it. My grandfather’s business and our church were in the Gas Pant District. We have to keep that in mind and honor that history and the Rays can be part of that.
Blackmon: We are a major league city and deserve a major league team. I have a great relationship with the Rays. I respect them, they’ve been good corporate partners. I’d like to see consolidation with the Rays and the Rowdies and continue working with the Rays.
On using public land and dollars for the Rays’ split season between St. Pete and Montreal
Ingram: We should be getting everything. It’s not fair to the taxpayers to have an MLB team trying to get one foot out the door.
Nelson: It’s not fair for me to answer that today. Look into the numbers and long-term what it would trigger.
Newton: Only if taxpayers have their name on the stadium. When the team has gone away for the split season, the city should have full use of the stadium to generate revenue for taxpayers.
Powers: It should be open to a vote.
Rice: It needs to balance and it depends on the return on investment. A smaller stadium would mean cost reductions. We have other serious issues like affordable housing and infrastructure that are huge priorities. I welcome working with the Rays on what makes sense on paper.
Welch: The Rays are going to have to bring a reasonable effort to the table. We can commit bed tax funds.
Blackmon: I would support bed tax dollars as well. We have to look at land in lieu of payments. We don’t want to be in a debacle like Miami is in.
Boland: We have the site, that’s our big bargaining chip. For the split season with Montreal, we have to make sure spring training takes place in St. Pete and there are no new taxes.
On sticking with the two finalists St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman selected, or restarting the entire process
Nelson: We need to start fresh.
Newton: We need a fresh clean slate – no ill will, backdoor deals. Remember, this was our Black Wall Street.
Powers: We need to open that up to a vote for the public on what companies we are going to work with and have a stakeholder survey. It’s a proper way to honor the ancestors on that land.
Rice: I think it was a mistake to start the request for proposals process before knowing what Rays are going to do. We are married to them until 2027. I led the effort to tap the brakes. It makes sense to me and is fair to developers who have come up with great plans. We need to hear from the Rays.
Welch: We do need the community involved, the county and the Rays, and start the discussion anew.
Blackmon: We need to start over. The Rays haven’t had a seat at the table and at the end of the day, the community needs to involved and like-minded, or else we are wasting time, emotions on a project that will never come to fruition in the current state
Boland: The Rays need a seat and [executives with] Al Lang need to be part of the discussion.
Ingram: With the incoming mayor, it doesn’t mean those two should be taken away. The new mayor should evaluate all options. This is a decision for the people.
On systemic racism, and if it’s present in the St. Pete Police Department
Newton: I don’t think it’s a problem with our police department. I want to meet with internal stakeholders and retired public officers. I was born and raised here, it shouldn’t be in St. Pete at all. The police get blamed for a lot of things and it’s not their fault.
Welch: I wrote an article 30 years ago as a guest for the Times about being profiled by police in Largo. Every department has to be accountable. We recently had 18 murders. I attended every one of those meetings about it. We need to have those conversations.
Rice: It’s important to define systemic racism. It means systems like health care and the justice systems retain vertiginous racist policies that persist today. We have to be honest and recognize certain things we inherited over the decades that benefited one group over another. As mayor, there will be no corner a white supremacist can hide in our police department. They aren’t there now and will not be in the future.
Powers: White supremacists are prevalent everywhere and that’s a problem. I believe the police department is dealing with their own traumas and issues. I’d want to see them go through therapy and work through their issues.
Blackmon: I do not believe it’s an issue in our police department. We have one of the most diverse ones in the nation. With the murder rate up, we need more officers.
Boland: We’ve improved a lot, but we keep locking up Black and Brown people over things like marijuana.
Ingram: I believe the most important thing is accountability. Systemic racism exists, most importantly we need to ensure there’s no home for it on any level of the city whether it be the police department or how we zone our districts.
Nelson: I don’t have a squeaky clean background, so I understand it from both spectrums. They need someone like me to introduce them to the community, restore the trust and break down that barrier.
The candidates were also asked what is attributing to the alarming number of deaths that have occurred in St. Pete. The majority of the candidates had similar responses, attributing the increased violence to people being isolated during the pandemic, lack of education, having one of the highest juvenile programs in the country, the war on drugs and the overall state of the economy.
On what they would have done differently in addressing the pandemic
Rice: With the Grand Prix and [separately] the concerns we had for Spring Break, which the Sheriff had odd arguments for, we need clearer communication with the public on wearing masks and saving lives.
Welch: We had a uniform message with shutting down the beaches and when needed, listening to health experts. Kriseman did a great job.
Blackmon: I immediately led and consulted a series of doctors. I advocated for reopening small businesses before the beaches. I would not cripple the small businesses as the mayor did.
Boland: We totally missed the boat on informing people how to better equip their bodies to combat the virus.
Ingram: We did a good job. We were one of the places with lower cases.
Nelson: It’s a difficult situation no one was prepared for. One thing we could’ve done was plant trees.
Another question asked was if the city should privatize the marina. The candidates all responded in opposition to privatizing it with some stating the city is capable of bringing in a management team.
On investing in projects to protect the city against climate change
Blackmon: I would plant oyster beds and mangroves to have resiliency.
Boland: I would want to recruit the best grant writing team and plant tons of trees throughout the city.
Ingram: In using natural defenses like seagrass, oyster beds, they won’t be damaged by storms like a seawall would, which we’d have to continue investing in.
Nelson: I think if we gave more incentives for businesses to plant more trees.
Newton: I would leverage money in our budget for addressing climate change.
Powers: I would want a monorail system that feeds carbon filtration.
Rice: The city identified numerous projects and found money to help fund energy-efficient projects. I would like to finish that list when I’m elected.
The primary election for the new mayor will take place Tuesday, Aug. 24.
Hear from each of the mayoral candidates in the St. Pete Catalyst‘s My Mayor podcast