Jolly, Crist, other local candidates talk sewage, the Rays, education at Gulfport forum
GULFPORT -- Several candidates appearing on the Gulfport general ballot took to the podium for a few minutes Thursday night to talk about their past experiences and future aspirations.
The forum at the Catherine A. Hickman theater featured 13th Congressional District candidates David Jolly and Charlie Crist, Pinellas County Commission District 3 candidates Mike Mikurak and Charlie Justice, state house district 70 candidate Wengay Newton, state house district 69 candidate Jennifer Webb and Pinellas County School Board District 1 At-Large candidates Matt Stewart and Joanne Lentino. All had a few minutes to address the audience and answer a follow-up question by the moderator and president of the Gulfport Area Chamber of Commerce, Barry Rubin.
Here's what the candidates had to say:
Congressional District 13
Charlie Crist spoke about how the Nov. 8 election is "the most important election in our lifetime." Crist emphasized the importance of running good campaigns and the virtue of being decent to one another. Crist, who grew up in St. Petersburg attending local schools, went over his platform points such as supporting veterans and protecting Social Security by lifting the salary cap of those making $118,000 who do not pay into the program. The former governor listed his proudest accomplishments as governor, including the automatic restoration of rights to former nonviolent felons and appointing an African American to the Florida Supreme Court.
David Jolly took the stage with a slight jab at those photoshopped campaign ads. "It's great not to be photoshopped here but to actually be here." He spoke about the importance of bipartisanship, and how doing the right thing can lead you to be "abandoned by your party and attacked by the other." During his tenure as congressman, Jolly said he worked with Clearwater mayor George Cretekos on affordable housing and making sand available in Gulfport to prevent flooding. He blasted St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's "failed leadership on the sewers." "I've offered Mayor Kriseman my help on the sewers and I'm still waiting on (what he would like me to do) from Washington." Jolly circled back to bipartisanship and his lonely road to push a bill that would prevent lawmakers from fundraising while in office.
Board of County Commissioners District 3 At-Large
Mike Mikurak moved to Pinellas County 16 years ago, where he spent the first 12 years in Gulfport. He noted how the town has since grown. It wasn't long before Mikurak brought up St. Petersburg's sewage spill. "If we had focused on infrastructure management and control, we could've avoided most of it if not all of it." He said the county needs to "be ahead of that process" and work closely with its cities. He also touched upon the necessity of short-term job training to put people to work.
Charlie Justice started off by saying how the County Commission was "a little bit of a mess" when he was elected four years ago. Since then, Justice said the bickering has subsided and the commission has passed human rights ordinance expansion, a wage theft ordinance and a few Gulfport fixes: a walkover at Osgood Point and improvements on 22nd Avenue South. He also brought up the issue of the Tampa Bay Rays stadium and the possibility of allocating the bed tax toward a new stadium if it's lucrative in the long run. "It makes no sense to make a brand new stadium if the attendance is going to stay the same as it does in Tropicana."
School Board District 1 At-Large
Matt Stewart spoke about how he is a product of Pinellas County schools and is now raising his 13-year-old foster son who attends Meadowlawn Middle. While he contends that "our schools are not failures," he says there is room for improvement. He said closing the achievement gap between black and non-black students is an ongoing issue that is critical and paraprofessionals have unacceptable low wages. He also said schools must serve as an economic pipeline into careers, and the School Board must come to places of worship and recreation centers to engage with the community. He said there is not one parent with children in the school system on the School Board, which is slightly misleading as Eileen Long, who has a daughter at Palm Harbor University High and a son at Clearwater Fundamental, won the District 4 seat in August and will take office Nov. 21. Stewart was asked about his support of charter schools, and he stressed that the district should strengthen oversight and not be in the habit of creating more charter schools.
Joanne Lentino moved into her grandparents St. Pete Beach home in 2003 and became a substitute teacher. She received her teacher's certificate and began teaching first grade at Gulfport Elementary. After she retired in 2013, she kept volunteering at Melrose and Lakewood elementaries. Lentino highlighted ways to make schools better, including investing in early childhood education, pushing back on exorbitant testing handed down by the state and family engagement. She also said restorative justice practices and interesting material is crucial for children in middle and high school.
NOTE: This post has been corrected to clarify Charlie Crist's position on Social Security. He proposes lifting the $118,000 salary cap so all individuals pay into the program.