ST. PETERSBURG — In some ways, the candidates running for Florida House District 69 are a study in contrasts.
Republican incumbent Kathleen Peters is at ease with her stump speech, amiably engaging audiences of familiar faces and seemingly oblivious to the woman who aims to supplant her.
Political newcomer Jennifer Webb, the Democrat, is earnest and studied, less at ease and more likely to take shots at her opponent.
Webb is clear about why she wants the District 69 seat, which covers south Pinellas beaches, South Pasadena, Gulfport and northwest St. Petersburg.
"Because our community deserves someone who will bring their voice to Tallahassee and really represent them and ensure that we are investing in our community and our families and standing up to special interests and big money lobbyists. And I'm that person," said Webb, 36, director of community partnerships in the office of community engagement and partnerships at the University of South Florida.
By "special interests and big money lobbyists" she means "the oil and gas energy and utility companies, the extractive companies that take from our communities but don't give back to our communities … people who are making money out of these terrible policies coming out of Tallahassee that my community, District 69, is just fed up with," she said.
Peters, 55, first held elected office as a South Pasadena commissioner. Later she was elected mayor, then to the Florida House in 2012 and re-elected in 2014. What issues come up as she campaigns? Peters said much of the talk is about mental health. It's her signature issue.
"I'm getting great response to the changes we have made," said the Treasure Island resident, who spent two years visiting mental hospitals and prisons to learn about the system and went on to spearhead statewide reforms.
The area's troubled sewer system also is high on people's list of concerns, Peters said. "That has been a huge topic and people are very frustrated and they are very pleased that I have done work to bring it to the forefront," she said.
Webb thinks Peters has overblown her efforts on behalf of the state's mental health system.
"Because I think the trumped up rhetoric of 'I single-handedly reformed the mental health system' is, I think, trumped up," Webb said, unapologetically hinting at a certain controversial presidential candidate.
"She has addressed one aspect of it, decriminalizing mental health and substance abuse. The truth is that we don't have enough mental health providers and people don't have access to affordable health care in a reimbursement structure. That is something that can absolutely be addressed at the state level," said Webb, who supports Medicaid expansion.
Peters acknowledges there is more work to be done. "What is next is funding" to give communities the resources they need, she said.
Webb, who lives in Gulfport, said she is hearing concerns about the infrastructure and environment, issues that are "inextricably linked," and about education. She's also hearing the concerns of families just recovering from the economic recession and hoping to continue to do so.
Both candidates agree that the environment is a serious issue, but vehemently disagree about where Peters stands on fracking. Peters says she opposes it. Webb points to her vote on a fracking bill that she says indicates otherwise.
Webb said a summary of the bill Peters supported shows that "it actually prevents local counties and cities from being able to ban fracking on their borders."
The bill, which failed in the Senate, would have authorized fracking and prevented local governments from regulating it. It also included a temporary moratorium and would have authorized the drilling technique only after it came before the Florida Legislature for another affirmative vote.
"I've always opposed fracking and you can interpret that bill any way you want to," Peters said. "That bill put in place a moratorium. When I read that bill and read the moratorium, it took an act of the Legislature to lift it. Anytime we have done a moratorium, it has always been difficult to reverse it. … Right now, because that bill failed, now anyone can come in and there's nothing we can do."
Webb disagrees. "She could have helped bring a bill that banned fracking, so we could have voted to protect Florida once and for all," she said.
On Monday evening, Webb joined others at a gathering organized by the interfaith group Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST. The group wants candidates to support a bill that would give children across the state equal access to civil citation programs, which would allow them to avoid arrest.
"I went because it was my opportunity to represent my future constituents, who when asked, overwhelmingly supported this bill," said Webb, adding that her community "doesn't want to line the pockets of the private prison industry at the expense of criminalizing our youth."
Peters did not attend. She said she was speaking at another event that night, but supports the effort and has voted for civil citations.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.