ST. PETERSBURG — Tom Ando follows City Council debates and organizes neighborhood meetings.
That is to say, he is more informed than your casual voter.
But don't ask him for whom he is voting in the District 5 council race.
"They all pretty much had the same message. Everyone wanted to reduce crime and improve schools," said Ando, president of the Broadwater Civic Association, summarizing a recent candidate forum.
Three longtime civil servants will face off in the Sept. 1 primary for a seat in this grab bag of neighborhoods that make up St. Petersburg's southern border. They are Steve Kornell, 43, a Pinellas County Schools social worker; Angela Rouson, 42, a Pinellas County Housing Authority commissioner; and Joseph Smith, 48, a retired police officer.
The seat is being vacated by City Council member Jamie Bennett, who is running for mayor. Bennett supports all three candidates.
"They all would do a good job," he said.
Regardless of the outcome, the victor will add to City Hall's diversity. Kornell is gay. Rouson and Smith are black.
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The candidates have similar goals: reduce crime, control city spending, protect downtown landmarks and foster economic development in an area where residents have few dining and retail options.
They envision chains such as Target, Applebee's or Olive Garden moving into the district's empty shopping centers.
Kornell said he would court independent business owners and green manufacturers. Rouson said any new development will have to wait until the economy rebounds. Smith said he would work with business owners to come up with an economic development plan.
Kornell, a former city recreation leader, has the support of the Pinellas County Stonewall Democrats, the Suncoast Sierra Club and Equality Florida. He raised $25,683 from 173 contributors from April through June.
Rouson scored the endorsement of the Pinellas Realtors Organization and the financial backing of developers such as Tony Amico, Virtual Reality Construction and New Advantage Corp. She is the wife of state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. She raised $10,800 from 30 contributors from April through June.
Smith raised $2,625 from 31 contributors during that time period.
Rouson and Smith said they would oppose public funding of a new Tampa Bay Rays stadium. Kornell said debt payments on Tropicana Field could be redirected to pay for a new stadium. "I do not support going deeper in debt, but I will support continuing the same amount of debt," he said.
The candidates, however, agreed to support the city tapping into its reserves to honor contracts worth $2.5 million with the city's union. Mayor Rick Baker had proposed citywide wage freezes to help balance the shrinking budget.
The three favor renovating the Pier and turning over the sidewalks along BayWalk to private investors to discourage rowdy protestors and promote tourism.
The candidates said the city should spend more to ensure children have safe areas to congregate and jobs when schools are closed.
Rouson favors a new kid-friendly venue at BayWalk, such as an arcade. Kornell said he would encourage sports teams to hire academic coaches to help students before or after games. Smith called recreation a vital necessity.
Rouson said she will rally for citywide WiFi. Smith and Kornell said they could support a universal WiFi network, depending on the cost.
Kornell said he will introduce a curbside recycling plan within two months of being sworn in. Rouson said she would support a curbside program that focuses on recyclable items that would yield the most return in the market. Smith said he could support a recycling plan if it did not result in increased taxes.
So, how are the candidates different?
They all see themselves as the election front-runner.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.