ST. PETERSBURG — One of the most important factors that differentiates the candidates running for mayor, according to Darden Rice, is leadership style.
Rice describes herself as collaborative, having learned early in her City Council career that more minds crafting an idea makes it better.
“Elected officials approach their work in different ways,” she said. “It’s been my preference to go and see what needs to be changed to benefit people. I’m willing to look at changing the status quo.”
Rice, 51, was involved in civic efforts before she joined City Council. She worked for conservation groups like the Sierra Club and Oceana, and she worked on health care reform for Progress Florida. Rice was also president of the League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area.
She’s in her eighth and final year on St. Petersburg City Council and has made progressive issues like the environment and sustainability key fixtures of her tenure.
Rice said she played a critical role in bringing universal curbside recycling to the city as a new Council member, and she created the Health, Energy, Sustainability and Resiliency committee of City Council, the first to address those issues. That committee has vetted proposals on ways to lower the city’s carbon footprint, reduce plastic straw waste and strengthen the city’s tree ordinance. It was also critical to the city securing a sustainability grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Her time on Council has overlapped with major city development projects, as well as challenges. The new police headquarters and St. Pete Pier both opened while she served. She was also in her first term during the city’s 2015-2016 sewage crisis, during which she and her council colleagues had to learn technical information about the infrastructure and find money in the budget to help address those problems.
She’s proud of the wage theft program the city implemented during her time on City Council, and the creation of the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area to help fight poverty in the city’s poorest communities.
“These accomplishments really set me apart, because I have experience working with a number of different groups and creating new programs,” said Rice, who earned her degree in American Studies from Eckerd College and was the first openly gay person to run for City Council in the city when she ran and lost in 2005. “It’s not easy to change the status quo, to do new things in a bureaucracy.”
Her primary objective, should she be elected, is to see St. Petersburg through its recovery from the pandemic. After that, she has an agenda that includes implementing universal preschool and free two-year college and technical training to underpin a jobs plan, balancing growth with preservation and addressing the city’s need for affordable housing.
“I want to grow the economy the right way, and I want to protect our quality of life, and what makes St. Pete special,” Rice said, summarizing her reason for running. “That’s the vision. That’s the general challenge that lies ahead for the next mayor.”
One of the most high-profile tasks for the next mayor will be tackling the two-pronged issue related to the future of the Tampa Bay Rays and the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site. Rice said she views the uncertainty surrounding the team as an impediment to development. She said she thinks Mayor Rick Kriseman is “rushing” the process and would consider reissuing a request for proposals once the Rays issue is worked out, which she said could yield more submissions.
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Rice also said she is open to learning more about the Tampa Bay Rays’ split season idea. Letting the team walk would be on the table, if that is ultimately what’s best for the city. But her first priority for the Trop project is ensuring it restores equity and honors the Black families who lived there before the stadium was built.
“I do hope we can work out a plan to keep the Rays here, but if not ... with the redevelopment of the Trop site, we are still in an excellent position ― with or without a baseball stadium,” she said. “Respect, civility and transparency will go a very long way, and I’m not sure we’ve seen a lot of that in the last few years.”
Rice was the first active City Council member to enter the race, followed recently by her colleague, Robert Blackmon. Because she began raising money in 2019, Rice has a massive fundraising lead. Between her political action committee, Friends of Darden Rice, and her campaign, she has accumulated more than $598,000.
Other candidates include former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch and former City Council member and state representative Wengay Newton.
Others in the field include restaurateur Pete Boland, former political operative and marketer Marcile Powers, University of South Florida political science student Michael Ingram, and former congressional write-in candidate Michael Levinson.
The primary election is Aug. 24. If no candidate earns more than 50 percent of the votes, the top two candidates will face off in the Nov. 2 general election.
The new mayor will be sworn in Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, and will serve a four-year term.
The Tampa Bay Times and Spectrum Bay News 9 are hosting a mayoral debate Tuesday, June 22 at noon. Watch it live at tampabay.com/politics and at baynews9.com/watch. It will replay on Bay News 9 at 7 p.m. This is the third in a series of profiles on the candidates.
Robert Blackmon: St. Petersburg mayoral run about ideas, not personalities
Michael Ingram: Could this 20-year-old be St. Petersburg’s next mayor?
Wengay Newton: Newton is passionate, persistent, combative
Marcile Powers: With an open heart, Powers runs for St. Petersburg mayor