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St. Petersburg’s Black churches make final push for Election Day turnout

As Democrats’ midterm odds hinge on their base, a Florida reverend urges: “Vote. There is no excuse.”
“The right to vote is still ours,” the Rev. Kenneth Irby said during Sunday service. Beside him, a sign read: Let My People Vote. “But having the right and acting on it are two very different things.”
“The right to vote is still ours,” the Rev. Kenneth Irby said during Sunday service. Beside him, a sign read: Let My People Vote. “But having the right and acting on it are two very different things.” [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Nov. 7, 2022|Updated Nov. 7, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG — Once more the faithful rose, mounting the steps and flocking into the pews of the oldest church in the city. The choir sang and the people swayed and the morning November light sifted in through stained glass, bathing benches worn by time and generations.

Their leader had handed out voter guides, organized rides to the polls and now, from the altar of St. Petersburg’s Historic Bethel AME Church two days before Election Day, the Rev. Kenneth Irby spoke loud and slow to a nodding crowd: “If all of us would vote, things would change.”

“Amen,” came a voice from the back.

It was the first Sunday of the month and the last day of early voting, and churches across the city were hoping to boost turnout.

“The right to vote is still ours,” the reverend said through a microphone. Beside him, a sign read: Let My People Vote. “But having the right and acting on it are two very different things.”

He quoted scripture and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke of hope and unity. He warned of misinformation and disenfranchisement.

Seven people had texted him that morning before 7 a.m. asking for prayer, speaking to the pain and promise he knew ran deep in his community. Now, he told the crowd: “Vote. There is no excuse.”

Members of the Historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church attend service on Sunday in St. Petersburg. During the service, the Rev. Kenneth F. Irby stressed the importance of voting and encouraged people to show up to the "Souls to the Polls” rally to be held later that day at Williams Park.
Members of the Historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church attend service on Sunday in St. Petersburg. During the service, the Rev. Kenneth F. Irby stressed the importance of voting and encouraged people to show up to the "Souls to the Polls” rally to be held later that day at Williams Park. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

After the service he drove from the church, at the corner of Third Ave N and 10th Street N, to downtown’s Williams Park, where an afternoon of celebration and mobilization awaited.

Bethel had joined forces with a handful of other local churches, community organizations and the statewide nonprofit Faith in Florida. Together they hosted Souls to the Polls, a get-out-the-vote initiative popular with predominantly Black churches across the country.

“A party in the park with a purpose,” said Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of the Woodson African American Museum of Florida.

Through the reverend’s windshield stretched a blue city in a relatively purple county in a state generally considered red. Republicans have over 300,000 more registered voters than Florida Democrats as of Oct. 11, the last day to register to vote in the general election.

Florida Republicans have also surpassed Democrats in ballots cast so far via mail and in-person early voting by about 337,000, according to state data on Sunday morning. (Nearly 835,000 voters registered with no party affiliation or with a third party have also voted.)

Among those on the ballot this year is St. Petersburg native and Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist, who used to represent this part of Pinellas County. For a Democratic Party on the defensive as Election Day looms, there is perhaps no group more important than Black voters. While these voters are no monolith, inside the church and at the park, St. Pete community members discussed rising rents, health care access and school funding as key motivators.

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“I’m not telling you who to vote for,” Rev. Irby told his constituents. Instead, he said he wanted to offer a framework to evaluate candidates. “They should not deny equity in education for all Americans. They should not continue to support privilege for some and destruction for others.”

State Rep. Michele Rayner waits in line to receive free crabs during the rally.
State Rep. Michele Rayner waits in line to receive free crabs during the rally. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

At Williams Park, whiffs of BBQ and hope hung in the air.

Among the crowd under dappled shade were Rep. Michele Rayner, civil rights and social justice attorney, running for re-election in the Florida House of Representatives, and Keesha Benson, a professor and social worker, running for a county school board seat. Allison Miller, running for state attorney, was mingling, as was Pat Gerard, seeking re-election as a Pinellas County commissioner.

“The process does not recognize you if you don’t use your voice,” said Matt Byrd, a local organizer for Faith in Florida and activist who has worked to curb gun violence in the city.

“I come from a community behind the eight ball,” he said, adding that rising rents are driving his neighbors away. “Voting is a step toward changing that.”

In one corner of the park, members of the St. Pete Gators, a youth sports group in crisp orange and blue uniforms, handed out fries and fried chicken. Too young to vote, but not to learn about democracy, thought founder Anthony Hart as he watched his players absorb speeches about public safety and public education. “We’re just trying to guide them to be involved in the community as best we can,” he said.

In another corner stood Nathanial Williams, thinking about how the last Florida governor’s race was decided by about 35,000 votes, while more than 225,000 eligible voters in Pinellas County alone did not vote.

People in his own family held close the belief that one vote doesn’t matter. “My job is to encourage and educate,” he said. Earlier that morning at Historic Bethel AME, he’d told the congregation: “If you don’t vote, don’t complain.”

Williams is one of about 10 people from the congregation serving as nonpartisan “election protection” volunteers, he said, working in shifts to help people at the polls on Tuesday. He’ll be handing out pamphlets in Spanish, English and Creole, and the crew will have attorneys on call to assist anyone turned away.

Joann Grages Burnett shakes hands with Dylan Dames as Allison Miller, center, a Pinellas-Pasco public defender running for state attorney, watches during the “Souls to the Polls” rally.
Joann Grages Burnett shakes hands with Dylan Dames as Allison Miller, center, a Pinellas-Pasco public defender running for state attorney, watches during the “Souls to the Polls” rally. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Meanwhile, in Hillsborough County’s Sun City Center, Gov. Ron DeSantis was hosting a re-election rally, speaking in front of a sign reading “Freedom Lives Here” to a cheering crowd where some wore DeSantis Airlines shirts, referencing his $12 million migrant relocation program.

And on the state’s east coast, former President Donald Trump welcomed supporters in Miami, the third stop in a four-city tour.

Rev. Irby climbed the stage of the Williams Park bandstand, decorated with balloons in red, white and blue. “We need to be voting like our lives depend on it,” he said. “You can’t sleep on this one.”

On Tuesday night, as the polls close and the counts begin, members of Historic Bethel AME Church say they will be praying. For now though, they joined the procession out of the park, pounding the pavement in the fading afternoon light and following the lead of the St. Pete Gators to the ballot box.

The St. Pete Gators cheer team chants while leading a line to the polls from Williams Park during a “Souls to the Polls” rally at Williams Park on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022, in St. Petersburg.
The St. Pete Gators cheer team chants while leading a line to the polls from Williams Park during a “Souls to the Polls” rally at Williams Park on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022, in St. Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

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