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State Representative candidates for District 70 speak at Tiger Bay Club

Jaymi Butler

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Suncoast Tiger Bay
From left to right: Michele Rayner, Mark Oliver, Keisha Bell, Michelle Grimsley

With elections less than a month away, the four candidates for Florida State Representative District 70 took to the virtual stage at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club’s candidate forum Wednesday. 

The candidates are:

  • Michele Rayner, an attorney and Pinellas County native with a long family history of public service. She supports equity in housing and education and also support for small businesses.
  • Mark Oliver, a St. Petersburg native and fitness professional who created a training program for students with disabilities in schools across central Florida. His main areas of interest include education, disability rights, the environment and equitable housing. 
  • Keisha Bell, a St. Petersburg native and attorney who is active in a number of community groups and serves on the city’s Community Planning and Preservation Commission. Her focus areas include affordable housing, access to quality health care, funding for schools and advocating for residents and businesses.
  • Michele Grimsley, a Manatee County native with a background in marketing and public relations who became the legislative aide to State Representative Wengay “Newt” Newton in 2018. Areas of interest include ending the school-to-prison pipeline, economic development, affordable housing and providing support to the veteran homeless population.

During the hourlong forum, the candidates shared their platforms and talked about their plans should they win the election Aug. 18. They shared many similar opinions on issues surrounding equity, education, healthcare and the need for community collaboration, though they also spoke about what sets them apart from one another.

Rayner said her principles of accountability, transparency and integrity as key to who she is and she spoke of her ability to collaborate.

“I know how to form relationships across the aisle,” she said. “I’ve done it throughout my career.”

A strong work ethic and leadership skills are what Oliver said made him different from the other candidates, though he shared Rayner’s views on building relationships.

“I know how to bring people together from different walks of life,” he said, adding that he hopes that he can be a voice for the voiceless if he’s elected.

Citing the relationships she’s already established from working as a legislative aide for district 70, Grimsley said she’ll be able to hit the ground running on day one with laser focus.

“My current experience and knowing what’s going on in the House right now sets me apart,” she said. “You need established relationships to bring resources back to our district.”

Bell referred to herself as the most “well-rounded” candidate of the four and talked about her extensive work in the community involving legal and health care issues.

“I have a heart for people and for District 70,” she said. 

All candidates agreed that District 70 has issues in terms of juveniles being directly filed into the adult criminal system and that the school-to-prison pipeline is all too real. Each one spoke about the need to build more community programs to keep young people engaged in positive activities and funding the ones that already exist. 

Another area where the candidates were in agreement relates to the lack of mental health funding in the state, which they’d all like to change. Bell and Rayner both spoke of the need for the expansion of Medicaid to support mental health services. Grimsley and Oliver expressed concern that Covid-19 will put more of a strain on mental health services, and said that organizations that work with people with mental illness need additional financial support. 

On the issue of whether systemic racism exists in District 70, all the candidates agreed that it does. They also talked about their interpretation of what it means to defund the police. 

“It’s about reimagining our relationship with law enforcement and their relationship with our community,” Rayner said, adding that she supports the St. Pete Police Department’s recent announcement that they would send social workers to respond to non-violent calls. 

Oliver said that he wouldn’t support defunding the police but would like to see more funds go toward mental health issues, which he feels could reduce the number of people going into the system.

Finally, the candidates addressed gentrification, which they all said is an issue in District 70. Keeping rents reasonable is crucial, as is making sure that community members and businesses have a voice in how their neighborhoods are being developed.

“We have to look at the people who are coming into our communities and buying up properties and seeing how the incentives work,” Grimsley said. “We need to create more opportunities for home ownership and make sure we’re not allowing people to come in, take over and push us out.”

Bell said she’d like to see more education for people who not only want to become homeowners but also for those who already have homes to maintain their properties to avoid violations. She’s also supportive of creating more programs to help low-income residents purchase homes.

“We need to keep having discussions on how real the issue of gentrification is,” she said.

The next Suncoast Tiger Bay Club meeting will be held Wednesday, Aug. 5 from 12-1 p.m. and will feature the four candidates for Pinellas County Commission District 7. To register, click here

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