City Council member Jim Kennedy not popular at Midtown candidate forum
ST. PETERSBURG -- City Council member Jim Kennedy angered at least a handful of residents at a Midtown forum last night as he defended his vote to appoint Karl Nurse to represent a majority black district.
"The other candidates, they were formidable, but, in my opinion, none of them had the qualities that Mr. Nurse had and I believe we have come past the time period where you select representation just on the color of the skin," said Kennedy, who represents District 2.
Problem is, Nurse, who is white, was up against four black applicants, including former council member David Welch. Nurse is the first non-black person to represent District 6, which includes Midtown, in nearly 30 years. He previously ran for the seat in 1993 and lost.
Lillian Baker, the event organizer and a Midtown business owner, went straight for Kennedy during the forum's open session.
"Kennedy, did you just say that none of the candidates running against Nurse were qualified? Because he was up against former council member David Welch and he is qualified. Other minority candidates were qualified," said Baker, president of the Wildwood Heights Neighborhood Association. "I take offense to that."
Kennedy answered, "I believe I said he was the most qualified."
But the audience wasn't satisfied.
Another black woman stepped forward and demanded, "How can you appoint Nurse over David Welch? How dare you come into Midtown or anywhere in the city of St. Petersburg or the state of Florida and make a statement like that."
Kennedy defended himself again, "I did not intend to insult Mr. Welch or any of his services."
Kennedy said he thought Nurse offered new ideas and that he was proud of his vote because of what Nurse has accomplished on the City Council. At this point, several audience members yelled out that Nurse has not accomplished anything since he was appointed.
After the forum, Kennedy said he didn't mean to offend anyone. "Karl had more to offer," Kennedy said of the appointment. "I just thought he could add the most to council."
Baker, who has criticized Nurse's tenure in the past, said Kennedy's comments were insensitive.
"That is a slap in the face," she said. "If you know your history, Dr. Welch is a pillar of our community."
So, which candidates support affirmative action? Vel Thompson, who is black and challenging Nurse, District 2 candidate Stephen Corsetti and District 4 candidate Pamella Settlegoode said they would not have appointed a white man to represent District 6.
Thompson went so far as to say the council should be racially balanced, with four white council members and four black council members. (The city's black population is nowhere near 50 percent.)
District 5 candidate Steve Kornell said the city should hold elections, which cost money, instead of appointing new council members to vacant seats between elections.
Meanwhile, Nurse had his own tense moment when community activist Theresa Lassiter asked him how many blacks did his printing company employ.
He said 20 percent of his employees at one point were African-American. Now, the largest minority group he employs are Latinos. He said about 20 percent of his employees were minorities, but would not say how many were blacks.
Several audience members yelled out that he wouldn't directly answer because he didn't employ any blacks.
Cristina Silva, Times staff writer