ST. PETERSBURG — The six candidates for City Council gathered Monday evening in the very chamber to which they aspire to serve.
The candidates for Districts 2, 4 and 6 gathered at City Hall for a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. They fielded a wide range of questions from the audience that had been vetted by the organization.
Hot-button topics included the future of the Tampa Bay Rays, the new pier, the state of St. Petersburg's infrastructure and economic development. There were also questions about what candidates thought about climate change, how they would lift up Midtown — the economically depressed, mostly African-American area in District 6 — and whether they support the city's annual Pride celebration. They were also asked about caring for the mentally ill and homeless, about public transportation and hurricane preparedness.
Perhaps the most memorable moment came toward the end, when District 6 candidate Justin Bean used his closing statement to speak against what he said had become a partisan election. He said he has been attacked because he is a Republican.
Bean, 30, a partner in his family's Web-based packaging company in the city's downtown, said he was invited to the inauguration of President Donald Trump. He noted that Democrats such as U.S. Sen. Cory Booker were also there.
But then Bean went on to distance himself from the president, saying that he was upset with the administration's policies toward the LGBTQ community and that he doesn't like that Trump has sowed discord in the country.
"I don't want to see that happen to our city," he said.
Later, Bean told the Tampa Bay Times that he did not vote for Trump.
Trying to distinguish themselves in the race for the District 2 seat were Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless. Each is hoping to follow in the footsteps of City Council member Jim Kennedy, who has reached the term limit. District 2 covers most of northeastern St. Petersburg up to Feather Sound, the Gateway and Gandy areas.
Harless, 32, a Bank of the Ozarks manager, has been endorsed by Kennedy and repeatedly spoke about his concern for small business, financial accountability and the need to rebuild the city's infrastructure.
Gabbard, 41, a Realtor, spoke of her values, the fact that she's a mother and wants to represent families and everyday people.
Council chair Darden Rice, who represents District 4, is being challenged by novice candidate Jerick Johnston, 21, a St. Petersburg native and University of South Florida St. Petersburg student.
"I am on record as being a strong supporter of the pier," said Rice, 47.
She touched on an issue in the ongoing mayor's race between incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman and challenger Rick Baker: the rising cost of the new pier.
Rice emphasized that the project is on budget (the over-water pier has a $46 million budget) and that the additional $20 million dedicated for the approach area is to launch the city's downtown waterfront master plan. Pinellas County has also allowed the city to reallocate $10 million in tax increment financing, or TIF funds, to add amenities primarily to the pier approach.
With the pier under construction, Rice said now is the time to work on the approach phase that includes the downtown waterfront master plan. She is running for re-election in a district that covers central and north St. Petersburg, including Crescent Lake, Euclid Heights, Euclid-St. Paul's and Meadowlawn neighborhoods.
Gina Driscoll, 46, who is challenging Bean in District 6, also firmly supports the pier project, praising its educational, recreational and entertainment opportunities. She also is in favor of using the additional $10 million in TIF funds for "enhancements" for the now-$76 million project.
Driscoll, who is also president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, has been endorsed by the council member who currently holds the District 6 seat, Karl Nurse. He is term-limited for the district that includes downtown and parts of the Old Northeast and Midtown, and the Old Southeast.
On Monday night, candidates were also asked about police departments being equipped with surplus military equipment.
"It is not necessary or appropriate to militarize our police department," Driscoll said.
Addressing the homeless issue, Harless said it is important to emphasize how many LGBT youth have become homeless.
Bean said he would focus on the "housing first" initiative, which aims to get homeless people into housing as soon as possible, and on getting landlords to accept housing vouchers.
Asked about public transportation, Gabbard said that she had been "passionate about Greenlight Pinellas," a plan that included light rail.
"I think it's something that we need to continue to talk about," she said.
The candidates also spoke about how they would help to improve the lives of Midtown residents.
Johnston spoke of "creating opportunities for people to start their own businesses" and to improve their education.
Each candidate expressed support for the city's LGBT community and the annual St. Pete Pride celebration. Rice reminded the packed chamber that when she ran for the council in 2005, she was the first openly gay candidate in Pinellas.
"It's amazing how our city has changed," she said, noting that there are now three openly gay people on the City Council. It's a sign, she said, that St. Petersburg is diverse and tolerant.
Mail ballots go out Oct. 3. The election is Nov. 7.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.