A City Council with no African-Americans? Tampa grapples with demographic change

Published February 26 2018
Updated February 26 2018

TAMPA — Frank Reddick is worried.

Tampa’s lone black City Council member is leaving office next year because of term limits. His district, which stretches across West Tampa, Downtown, Channelside, Ybor City and east Tampa, has long been an African-American political stronghold.

But as downtown and Channelside has added white residents, the demography of the district has shifted. In recent years, the percentage of black registered voters fell from 61 percent to under 54 percent, in part because black residents of North Boulevard homes and Tampa Presbyterian Village moved out. And with the massive West River development looming, what happens if a well-connected white candidate with deep pockets steps into the ring?

A City Council without black representation remains a real possibility, Reddick said.

"That would be a major setback," he said.

But keeping a black person on the council isn’t an easy puzzle to solve.

Tampa’s city charter requires council districts to be redrawn every four years to reflect population shifts. Earlier this month, the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections certified new lines, which bumped the district’s percentage of black registered voters to 56 percent.

But in the future, more of District 7, which covers north and New Tampa, might have to be brought into Reddick’s District 5 to retain its African-American majority, said Terry Eagan, who led the map redraw.

"Obviously, it’s a concern for the black community," Eagan said. "It’s a concern for us as well."

When you swap out a precinct from one district — for whatever reason — it usually means you have to move another precinct, then another.

"It can quickly get out of hand," Eagan said.

St. Petersburg has gone through similar changes. For decades, District 6 was held by black elected officials until Karl Nurse was appointed in 2008. He won two elections. Gina Driscoll, who is also white, emerged victorious last year from a crowded field that included several black candidates — none of whom made it to the runoff. Chairwoman Lisa Wheeler-Bowman is the eight-member council’s only black member.

Driscoll’s district, which hugs the waterfront from the southern portion of Old Northeast to Bartlett Park and takes in part of Midtown, has become steadily whiter, losing its black majority in recent years as whites streamed into apartments and condos downtown and neighborhoods like the Old Southeast.

"What happened in St. Pete, that’s what’s happening here in Tampa," Reddick said.

Unlike St. Petersburg, though, Tampa’s council districts are drawn by planners without any political influence. In the Sunshine City, council members approve a map drawn under the supervision of the mayor.

"In Tampa, the city has no role in the process. I keep council members informed but they can’t tell me what to do," Eagan said.

Tampa’s municipal election isn’t until March 2019. So far, no white candidate is in the race. But Reddick notes it’s early.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he is confident that District 5 will be represented by a black person next year. But he acknowledged the changing demographics could present a challenge to representation.

"I don’t want an entire City Council that looks like me. Because I don’t think we hear the concerns of the community in the same way that we would if we had someone who lived there and reflected the diversity of that district," Buckhorn said.

Tampa didn’t elect its first African-American to the City Council until Perry Harvey Jr. won the seat in 1983. But as late as 2011, the City Council had three black members.

One worrisome scenario for Reddick is too many black candidates get into the race, splitting the black vote. He said he plans to work with other black leaders to discuss how to narrow the field.

"We need to sit down and discuss the reality of this. You don’t want to be the individuals to lose us this seat," Reddick said.

One of the two candidates who have announced so far is Ralph Smith, a community activist. Smith said he understands and agrees with Reddick’s concerns, but doesn’t think the seat is in immediate danger.

"I think a Caucasian candidate will have an easy time getting to a runoff, but right now it’s set that an African-American can pull through," Smith said.

But like Reddick, Smith said the gentrification pressures pushing many black voters out of the district are not easy to combat.

"That worries me quite a bit. It really does. That’s a big concern for the African-American community,’’ he said. "If we lose this seat, that would really mean on City Council there would be no voice."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.