ST. PETERSBURG — Rene Flowers remembers where she was the moment she heard Gov. Rick Scott had appointed a recent transplant from Tampa to fill her dead friend's seat on the Pinellas County School Board.
She was driving to South Florida. She might have said "heck," or maybe another word. And then she ran through a mental list of all the longtime Pinellas figures who had applied for the appointment and didn't get it.
Four days later, she filed to run to take possession of the seat come November.
Now, Flowers and Scott appointee Glenton Gilzean Jr. are the top two fundraisers in the five-person District 7 race to secure the last two years of the term of the late Lew Williams. While Flowers, a former St. Petersburg City Council member, is touting her deep Pinellas connections, Gilzean's campaign contributions reveal he's still struggling to make them.
"It is a challenge," said Gilzean, who said he moved to St. Petersburg from Tampa in November and rented a room from former St. Petersburg City Council member Gershom Faulkner in the months leading to his appointment.
Gilzean has received 47 contributions totaling $5,754 to fuel his campaign, but only 29 of those came from people or organizations within Pinellas. Others originate in Tampa, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Brandon, Temple Terrace and elsewhere.
Flowers has pulled in close to three times that — $15,117 — with only 12 of 131 contributions from outside Pinellas.
On the campaign trail, Gilzean, 30, has taken to touting his experience as a former Department of Education staffer who understands what schools need. He has a master's degree in entrepreneurship from the University of South Florida. In graduate school, he founded two businesses and one education-related nonprofit called Educate Today, which he says he's resigning from to spend more time focusing on the School Board and his campaign.
For those who have stuck a little money in his coffer, Gilzean's outsider status is more of an asset than a drawback.
"Mr. Gilzean is a breath of fresh air and badly needed," said John Mitcham, a retired businessman from Palm Harbor who donated $250 to Gilzean's campaign. But even Mitcham's support further reveals one of Gilzean's biggest challenges: finding voters within the District 7 boundaries of south Pinellas County, St. Petersburg and Gulfport, who are able to cast a vote in his favor.
Flowers doesn't hesitate to remind voters who show up to election forums and campaign events that her understanding of Pinellas and its issues goes back pretty far.
She said that during the first District 7 candidate event they both attended, Gilzean asked publicly what she had done to improve education in all of her years in Pinellas County.
"Mr. Gilzean, I ask you, what have you done?" Flowers retorted at a recent debate at Osceola High School, after ticking off her qualifications, including work in the area of affordable housing.
The names of Flowers' donors illustrate her connections with local leaders, especially from St. Petersburg: R'Club executive director Art O'Hara, longtime community activist Watson Haynes, philanthropist Gus Stavros and state Rep. Darryl Rouson, among others.
Gilzean said he's struggled to make time for campaigning between getting married, wading through School Board work, and leading Educate Today.
But he believes the times he has been able to hold audience with local power brokers have paid off.
His contributors include several Pinellas Education Foundation leaders, such as Craig Sher of Sembler Co., Jim Myers of Crown Automotive and Bob McIntyre of Ditek.
"A couple of people who have donated to me," Gilzean said, "they said, 'We can't afford to have status quo.' "
When Flowers and Gilzean face off for the nonpartisan seat in the Aug. 14 primary, they will also contend with lawyer Keisha Bell, Thurgood Marshall Middle School teacher's aide Cassandra Jackson, and University of South Florida student Corey Givens Jr.
Bell has raised $4,511 in her second bid for the seat. Jackson has pulled in $2,082 and Givens has $3,226.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]