ST. PETERSBURG — Lisset Hanewicz was born Lisset Gonzalez, daughter to Cuban exiles, at Tampa General Hospital.
She grew up in Miami with her mami and her Abuela, and she dropped out of high school to help support the household. She finished school at night, earned her bachelor’s and master’s in business administration and went to law school where she met her husband, Wayne Hanewicz.
She became a prosecutor in the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office, then a federal prosecutor, and then, a mother — giving her the chance to stay home and become active in her community by reviving the Crescent Lake Neighborhood Association.
Hanewicz was the top vote-getter in August’s primary election for the District 4 seat on St. Petersburg City Council, representing the neighborhoods of Crescent Heights, Magnolia Heights, Woodlawn, Meadowlawn, Euclid St. Paul’s and Historic Old Northeast. She now faces a city-wide runoff election in November against Tom Mullins, a 30-year executive at Raymond James.
Hanewicz’s story is similar to that of many Hispanics — and in Florida, particularly Cuban-Americans — who make a better life for themselves and their family and then enter into public life.
Yet that story has never been told in St. Petersburg. If elected, Hanewicz would be the first Hispanic to serve on City Council.
In an election with history to be made, Hanewicz says there’s more to her story.
“I didn’t do anything to be Hispanic. I was born Hispanic,” she said. “But I worked to get my education, to be an attorney, to be a prosecutor, to be a federal prosecutor, to be a leader in my community. I just bring a different ethnic background and experience — a child of immigrants.”
“They don’t (say), ‘Look at Lisset the Hispanic,’” she continued. “They see me as someone doing something for their community. ... I guarantee you the majority of people who voted for me is because of the work I’ve done or because they’ve read about it.”
But Hanewicz has come across Hispanic support on the campaign trail. One woman reached out to say that she’s a local Cuban named Lisset, too. One man wrote to her: “Growing up in St. Petersburg I rarely met any Cuban-Americans. It is important for the council to reflect our communities. If my mom were still alive I’m sure she would be beyond excited to vote for La Cubanita.”
“Buena suerte (Good luck),” he signed off.
Another Cuban candidate endorsed Hanewicz’s opponent
Jarib Figueredo came to St. Petersburg because there wasn’t a large Hispanic community.
He was born and raised in Cuba and sold lemons on the streets there at age 10 to support his family, who faced persecution by the government for their Christian beliefs. His mother came to the U.S. when he was 13; he was separated from her until he arrived in Miami at age 19.
He spent less than two weeks in Miami before moving to St. Petersburg, what he calls an English-speaking city. He learned the language by listening to the MJ Morning Show on 93.3-FLZ.
Figueredo went to school to become a surgical technician, but ended up working in the mail room of a payroll company and worked his way up to being a payroll specialist. Then he started his own payroll company using a new technology called blockchain.
A decade later, he ran for the District 4 seat for City Council. He came in fourth out of five candidates with 12.3 percent in August. He, too, came across Cubans on the campaign trail.
“I came from Cuba with nothing but one Cuban peso,” Figueredo said. “I achieved the American dream. I felt like I took so much. I felt like I needed to give back. I feel like I owe it to people who came before me.”
Figueredo has endorsed Mullins, touting his qualifications of running a successful company and providing jobs.
“I think Tom will make decisions in the city that will benefit Hispanics more than Lisset,” Figueredo said. “I don’t like identity politics. I like the qualities of the individual.”
In the nonpartisan race, Mullins and Figueredo are both Republicans, and Hanewicz is a Democrat. But party politics isn’t necessarily at play — Mullins wants voters to pay attention to his track record of creating jobs and his specific ideas.
Mullins said Hanewicz has more name recognition in District 4, but that won’t be much help in the general election. His campaign website has detailed plans about the city’s issues; Hanewicz’s website features her biography and her qualifications. Mullins said he objects to her using “racial positioning.”
“I think we’re being far more candid in our campaign. I’m talking about specific ideas and solutions,” Mullins said.
“I would love it if it turns into a competition of ideas,” Mullins added.
A first for St. Petersburg
Even the two-term mayor didn’t realize a Hispanic likely has never been elected to City Council.
“The diversity would be cool,” said outgoing mayor Rick Kriseman, who is a fan of having a lawyer like Hanewicz on council.
Pinellas Democratic Party chair Lucinda Johnston said she would like Hanewicz to do a robocall for the local Democrats to not only help her own campaign, but to drive Hispanic voters to the polls. There are 9,265 registered Hispanic voters in St. Petersburg, yet only 1,610 — about 17 percent — cast a ballot in the August election.
“We tend to look at the word Hispanic as a bloc,” Hanewicz said. “We’re really hoping we can start representing all of the democrats in Pinellas County. And make sure everyone feels included and not forgotten.”
According to the American Community Survey’s five-year estimate from 2019, 8.3 percent of St. Petersburg residents are Hispanic. Compare that to 17.5 percent in Clearwater, home to a large Mexican population, and 26.4 percent in Tampa, rich in pre-revolution Cuban history. St. Petersburg’s Hispanic population is younger and has grown since receiving an influx of migrants from Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017 and Central American earthquakes in 2018.
Jessica Estevez has been charged with listening to and elevating the Latinx community as a senior consultant for Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg. She’s interviewed more than 100 people.
“The thing that came across for us was invisibility,” she said. “Most of the interviews ended up coming across with many folks saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t know there were any Latinos in St. Pete. I’m the only Latinx person in my group of white friends, or in my group of black friends.’”
Estevez said some are invisible by choice because their family may have mixed immigration status. Some are passing as white and struggle with being considered Hispanic, or didn’t necessarily grow up in a Hispanic culture. Others feel like passing as white means they’ll have a better chance of succeeding.
She said electing a Hispanic council member would open a door to listening and representation from someone who is intentional about staying connected to their Latinx culture.
“I think for someone who is able to ostensibly share their Latinx identity and begin to represent the needs and offer a pathway for a voice, I think you would just start to open up a pipeline for safety, for feeling,” Estevez said. “We already know representation matters, so we know in and of itself it would be important.”
Estevez has founded a group through the foundation called Mi Gente (My People). They’re hosting a virtual town hall Wednesday for candidates running for St. Petersburg mayor and city council. Hanewicz will be there.
Times staff writer Juan Carlos Chavez contributed to this report.