ST. PETERSBURG — Two first-time candidates aim to replace Jim Kennedy as the District 2 representative on the City Council.
Both are Democrats. Both are young — relatively. Both are navigating life as a political candidate for the first time.
But there are differences between Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless, too.
Though it’s his first time as the one whose name is on the ballot, Harless, 32, isn’t new to political campaigns in Florida. He served on state Sen. Darryl Rouson’s staff when the St. Petersburg Democrat was in the House of Representatives. Harless later worked on Alex Sink’s campaign for governor. The Bank of the Ozarks manager voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Kennedy, he said, personally encouraged him to run for his seat. And now that he’s running his own campaign, he made a pledge not to accept money from political action committees.
Gabbard, on the other hand, has never volunteered with a campaign. She voted for Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee. And the 41-year-old Realtor qualified as a City Council candidate not by paying a fee, but by acquiring 500 signatures while knocking on doors within the district. When it comes to fundraising, she has accepted the backing of the Realtor PACs in Pinellas and Tallahassee.
Gabbard has been active in the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the local Realtor trade organization. She said her perspective as a Realtor and a mom who’s invested in the future of the community would shape her approach on the council.
"The future of St. Petersburg is vitally important to me," Gabbard said.
And while both she and Harless are Democrats with similar views, she sees a distinction in what topics they would prioritize. Gabbard said she is most committed to public safety, affordable housing and economic development.
"I am very concerned that dream of first-time homeowners to be able to live in St. Petersburg affordably is slipping away a little bit," she said. "I want St. Pete to be a home for everyone to grow their families."
Harless said he’s committed to making sure local government spends responsibly and that the City Council is a good steward of taxpayer dollars. It’s a concept he said he’s very familiar with as a banker with responsibility to clients.
"I don’t for the life of me understand why we keep pursuing big projects that go over budget, that take too long and then we keep doing business with the private entities who are responsible," he said, speaking specifically about the city’s plans to rebuild the pier. "We keep following these same pathlines."
Harless said he learned a lot from working with Rouson and Sink. Yet Sink actually told him to get out of politics after her campaign ended in 2014. Three years later, he’s running for office.
"There are certain aspects of politics I don’t like," he said. "But City Council is very non-partisan. It’s very, ‘Get things done.’ Interest groups have a lot less influence. We’re still able to make policy. That’s what attracted me to it."
Harless complained that the majority of Gabbard’s campaign contributions come from Realtors.
Harless has honed in on financial backing as a key difference between himself and Gabbard. He made a pledge to not accept contributions of more than $1,000 and challenged Gabbard to do the same. He chastised Gabbard during a Tiger Bay debate for allowing outside interest groups to pay for mailers that went out last week.
"This should concern every resident of St. Pete," Harless said of the mailers. "We must have independent thinkers in city government not beholden to special outside interests."
Gabbard countered that she hasn’t taken more than the legal $1,000 contribution from any outside group. As for the mailers, she said she’s thankful for any support from Realtors, police, firefighters or others who want to provide to her and her campaign.
"As far as any support I have garnered from them, any support they want to put behind me, I am certainly not going to decline it," she said. "If my opponent had support of groups that wanted to do stuff for him, I’m sure he’d be happy to take it."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.