In St. Pete’s District 4, a rookie challenges a council veteran

St. Petersburg City Council candidates (from left) Jerick Johnston and incumbent council member Darden Rice. Johnston, a political newcomer, is challenging Rice for the District 4 seat. [CHERIE DIEZ   |   Times]
St. Petersburg City Council candidates (from left) Jerick Johnston and incumbent council member Darden Rice. Johnston, a political newcomer, is challenging Rice for the District 4 seat. [CHERIE DIEZ | Times]
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ST. PETERSBURG — As the three City Council races draw to a close, the candidates have been canvassing the community to spread their messages and set themselves apart from each other.

But in District 4, that’s not so hard. The two candidates have perhaps the most divergent backgrounds in this year’s city elections.

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The incumbent candidate is Darden Rice, 47, the council chair who has long been involved in civic affairs. The former president of the League of Women Voters sits on the boards of Forward Pinellas, the county’s transportation planning agency, and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

She is opposed by 21-year-old Jerick Johnston. He is a rookie candidate, with no political experience, running in his first election. He is a student at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and created his own information technology business, Johnston Consulting.

Johnston said he wants to represent the city’s growing segment of younger residents.

"I really think we need a young voice on city council," he said. "We’re a city that’s getting younger and younger. I’d love to see that get represented."

For his first foray into politics, Johnston has picked a tough road: District 4 is the only council race with a well-funded incumbent candidate. The incumbents in the District 2 and 6 races were term-limited out, but Johnston couldn’t quite explain why he ran for this particular seat.

Rice has raised $148,481 according to the latest campaign finance reports filed Oct. 27 and spent $146,978 on election expenses such as mailers and a TV ad.

Johnston, by comparison, has raised $5,331 and spent $2,342. His largest expenditure was $664 spent on campaign signs.

Despite that disparity and long odds, Johnston won’t concede anything. To him, he’s still got a shot in Tuesday’s election.

However, he said that he also sees the election itself as a "huge" learning opportunity.

For example, when he first started his campaign, the soft-spoken candidate kept his answers brief and was frequently asked to speak up into the microphone. But since those early forums, Johnston said he’s become more comfortable speaking in public.

"I’m highly introverted," he said. "Standing on stage is kind of out of my comfort zone. I’m much better in small groups. It’s really talking with individual voters.

"I’ve loved so much talking to people. I’ve learned everyday how everyone has something important to them."

While the other city candidates have spent the election cycle tearing into each other (see the mayor’s race) Johnston and Rice have so far enjoyed a cordial rivalry.

"I appreciate that Jerick has not been negative," Rice said.

She also welcomes the presence of young people trying to get involved in municipal politics.

"It wasn’t so long ago that I was the young person trying to get involved in city government," she said.

Johnston said he’s spent his time researching issues such as the city’s spending on infrastructure and economic development. Being a third-generation St. Petersburg resident offers, he said, him a perspective some might not associate with his age. He also cited his experience running his own business as helping teach him what small business owners in the city go through.

"One of the best experiences of this campaign was candidate orientation," he said. "Getting to sit down with the city department heads and learn about (their areas of expertise) was a once in a lifetime opportunity."

However, Rice said candidates should make sure they have a good understanding of city government before deciding to run for office.

"There’s something to be said for earning your stripes in a volunteer capacity as a young person," she said. "It helps build experience and insight."

Johnston and Rice are almost the opposite of rivals. After the election, Rice said, she hopes to get Johnston more involved in city affairs.

"Should I win, I’m definitely going to reach out to Jerick find ways to get involved in the city and plugged in," she said. "I want to make sure he doesn’t fade away."

Contact Divya Kumar at [email protected] Follow @divyadivyadivya.

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