ST. PETERSBURG — The candidates for the District 6 City Council seat ditched their suits for jeans for a round of "speed dating" on Monday.
The forum at the Coquina Key Neighborhood Association clubhouse was starkly different from previous ones defined by strict time constraints and pre-approved questions. Here voters, not moderators, asked the questions.
Rather than sitting on a stage for two hours, candidates delivered brief one-minute opening speeches and then spent the next hour walking around the clubhouse room, mingling with voters who snacked on cookies and chocolate.
Small clumps of voters, many dressed in T-shirts and flip flops, surrounded candidates and began the forum by discussing local issues.
For Pam and Robert Muller, who have lived on Coquina Key for 45 years, the issue of the day was recycling. The couple expressed fear that former Mayor Rick Baker, if he were to be elected to that office again, would end the curbside recycling program. They spent the meet-and-greet time shopping for candidates who would stand up for the program and the environment.
Pam Muller, 69, lamented the environmental legacies of Baker and his predecessor, Mayor Bill Foster, and said the recycling question was good for getting a feel for candidates she didn't know yet.
Lynnette Davis, 45, said she also wasn't familiar with all of the candidates before attending the forum. She laughed when she heard about the forum's "speed-dating" format, as the association president jokingly put it, and said it would be good for meeting the candidates. Davis was leaning toward supporting Corey Givens Jr.
Givens, she said, was young and organized. As an African-American, like herself, he would serve as a good role model for young black men in the district, she said.
As the forum progressed, many of the voters and candidates transitioned from talking about issues on Coquina Key to issues in the broader district, which also covers parts of Midtown, downtown and the Old Northeast.
Ed Gallizzi, 72, a resident of Coquina Key, wondered whether the downtown area was headed toward a housing bubble. He said Coquina Key would probably be safe from it, but that City Council candidates should be careful about what the city was allowing to be built.
Candidate Maria L. Scruggs, surrounded by a group of voters from the island, returned to a familiar refrain from previous forums.
"While the sun shines on some parts of the city," she said, gesturing around her, "it doesn't fall equally on all parts."
She described the lack of attention the city had paid to the heavily African-American Midtown area and said she had always worked, and would continue to work, to fix it.
Off to a side of the room, two of her supporters — Joseph and Mary Johnson, both 71 — sat in plastic chairs. The couple's plain red-and-white "Maria L. Scruggs City Council" T-shirts stood out in a room of pastel-colored tops.
Mary Johnson said many of the candidates sounded the same and had ties to downtown money. She was sure that Scruggs, whom she had worked with in the St. Petersburg Chapter of the NAACP, was sincere and would look out for the whole district. Her husband, Joseph, chimed in that he admired the same quality about Baker
By the end of the meet-and-greet hour, many of the residents had joined the Johnsons and taken a seat. Candidates gathered at the center of the room to make practiced closing remarks and ask voters to mark their names on mail-in ballots that go out today. Unlike in previous forums, the candidates mostly refrained from poking at each other and focused on bright visions for the city.
"They all said the same nice thing," said Gallizzi.
Eight candidates are running to replace term-limited City Council member Karl Nurse: Givens; Scruggs; Justin Bean; Robert Blackmon; Gina Driscoll; James "Jim" Jackson; and James Scott. Candidate Eritha "Akile" Cainion, of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, did not attend the forum.
The top two candidates from the Aug. 29 primary will advance to the Nov. 7 general election.
Contact Asa Royal at email@example.com.