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Diverse candidates vie to represent St. Pete's diverse District 6

International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement-affiliated City Council candidate Eritha "Akile" Cainion pauses between answers during a recent forum at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront. She is one of eight candidates vying to represent the diverse and sprawling District 6 seat on the St. Petersburg City Council. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Published Aug. 2, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — The District 6 City Council seat has attracted eight hopefuls who are as diverse as the sprawling area they hope to represent.

Their number includes white and black residents; millennials and baby boomers. They call the booming downtown home; have roots in the struggling Midtown community; or they have settled in the district's middle-class neighborhoods.

When the District 6 boundaries were redrawn in 2013, 51 percent of its residents were minorities. But, outgoing City Council member Karl Nurse said the recent growth of the downtown population has caused that percentage to dip.

It's meant further change to the district that for decades was represented by black leaders — until Nurse was appointed to fill the vacant council seat in 2008. Nurse, who was convincingly elected twice to that seat, cannot run again because of term limits.

Voters will soon decide the next person to represent this sprawling district, which includes some southern neighborhoods and stretches through parts of downtown and even into a portion of Old Northeast. The top two vote-getters will face each other on Nov. 7.

Who will represent the district is a sensitive issue for African-American leaders.

Abdul Karim Ali, whose father, Joseph E. Savage, organized the 1968 sanitation strike in the city — a landmark civil rights effort — believes the seat should go to a black resident.

"I am very concerned about District 6 having proper representation on City Council, said Ali, who is an imam and president of the Tampa Bay Area Muslim Association.

"This is not a criticism of the current council member. I like (Nurse) quite well and he did a lot of good, but the real strong voice of District 6 has been lightened. At one point, we had at least two people sitting on the council, and somehow, we lost that."

The Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist, an African-American church, said the seat had been considered a black seat before Nurse was appointed to take the place of the late Earnest Williams, who resigned to run for the Legislature.

"A number of very qualified African-Americans made a bid to replace (Williams)," Sykes said, adding that he doesn't think that anyone who has not "experienced the neglect and the struggles of the Southside can adequately serve as an advocate."

Sykes said he has a problem with how the district was redrawn: The new boundaries "combine such a vast difference in income, education, lifestyle and city investment ... It's a tale of two cities and I believe it's strategic."

Nurse sees hope in the next round of redistricting. According to the city charter, council boundaries are redrawn every 10 years based on the results of the U.S. Census to make sure that districts remain equal in size and correspond to voting precincts.

Before the 2013 redistricting, Nurse said that task had been the responsibility of the City Council. He proposed that it be taken over by a redistricting commission.

"I don't think that elected officials ought to be able to draw their own lines," he said. "The district is supposed to be compact, contiguous and with natural borders and precincts. It was the last one that got us in trouble."

Nurse said he has since worked to change the charter to make precincts the least important of the four criteria for redrawing the lines. Since some of the precincts are so large, he said, it was difficult to create a compact, contiguous district. That's why District 6 now stretches across 80 blocks.

Nurse, who lives in Old Southeast, lost half of Lakewood Estates and areas of Midtown south of 18th Avenue S in the redistricting. He gained Bahama Shores and downtown from Central Avenue to Ninth Avenue N. And, Nurse said, the district went from 68 percent African American to about half.

"When the district was changed, I lost all of the majority African-American middle-class neighborhoods," Nurse said, "which was where all of the most viable African-American candidates and all the African-American job holders for that district came out of."

He mentioned Bette Wimbish, David Welch, Earnest Williams, Frank Peterman and Charles Shorter.

The only solution, Nurse said, is to redraw the lines after the next census in 2020, which he said will likely happen because of the growing downtown population.

Of the eight candidates vying for the seat, three are black. Maria Scruggs, 59, is president of the St. Petersburg NAACP branch and a supervisor with Orange County Corrections. Corey Givens Jr., 25, is a claims clerk with WellCare Health Plans in Tampa. Eritha "Akile" Cainion, 20, is a shoe store clerk and membership coordinator for the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, a group that advocates for social justice for African Americans.

Sykes said he has "narrowed" his support to Scruggs, whom he referred to as an "elder statesman," and to Cainion. He said he supports Cainion "because she's young, she's smart and, with the one exception that some of her language is inflammatory, I think she has a good analysis of the current state of affairs."

Ali is endorsing Scruggs "because of her experience."

"I want to make sure we have a voice that looks just like myself, but can speak for the entire district," he said, adding that a black person is just as qualified to speak for the black community and also for the entire city.

Nurse, who said he tried unsuccessfully to recruit several African-American candidates he thought could win the seat, has endorsed Gina Driscoll, 46, president of the influential Downtown Neighborhood Association.

The other District 6 candidates are Justin Bean, 30, Robert Blackmon, 28, James "Jim" Jackson, 72, and James Scott, 29.

The Aug. 29 primary will determine the top two candidates who will face each other in the Nov. 7 general election.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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