In a normal election year, Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice would be canvassing neighborhoods, mingling at fundraising events and shaking hands at Kiwanis luncheons to ask for residents' votes.
But the coronavirus pandemic has dampened campaign season, forcing the District 3 Democratic incumbent to leave brochures on doorknobs and host virtual events at a distance from his constituents. The contagion adds a challenge to defending his record in the county-wide seat against his opponent, Republican Tammy Vasquez, 48, a small business owner running against the county’s coronavirus response.
Justice, 52, is pushing back against Vasquez’s platform that blames the county for businesses being forced to close for months during the height of the pandemic. On April 1, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued his first coronavirus related executive order that limited all activity in Florida to essential services. He didn’t, however, define what was essential, leaving counties to determine which industries to close. DeSantis’s later orders specified businesses he allowed to reopen in phases.
“Early on her platform was about businesses being closed but she realized it was a governor’s order, so then it went to term limits then transportation,” Justice said. “Every week it’s a different thing and I’m not 100 percent sure what the focus this week is for her.”
Vasquez declined to be interviewed for this story, only answering questions via email.
“Our current county commission’s overreach is an ineffective way to serve the community,” said Vasquez, who didn’t answer a follow-up question asking what should have been done differently.
Justice said any re-election campaign is about the incumbent’s record, but he expects this year’s charged presidential election to guide partisan decision making down the ballot.
“We don’t play partisan politics on the county commission, we focus on getting the job done for the people of Pinellas, that’s why I’m a good fit for my experience and what I’ve already done,” he said.
Justice, a St. Petersburg native who served in the Florida Legislature from 2000 to 2010, points to initiatives that have helped the economy and quality of life during his eight years in county office. He is credited for spearheading efforts to open the Lealman Exchange, a community center meant to help revitalize the area. The Small Business Enterprise program increased the value of goods the local government buys from small businesses from $250,000 to $7 million. While chair of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, water quality has improved to its best “in over 50 years," Justice said. And he highlights improvements made for first responders, including “better protective gear, an updated fleet, new rescue units” and millions for salary improvements.
Justice earned the endorsement of the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters, while Vasquez is backed by the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association.
For a third term, Justice said he would prioritize addressing areas of poverty, spending on infrastructure and boosting small businesses and local employers.
Vasquez grew up in Treasure Island and owns Bark Life, a dog grooming, boarding and retail business. She is calling for term limits, an issue with a convoluted history in Pinellas County. Limits of two four-year terms for county commissioners and constitutional officers was approved by 73 percent of voters in 1996 but a series of legal challenges left the issue open for years. In 2013, a circuit court judge ruled that a 2012 decision by the Florida Supreme Court affirming term limits did not reverse a 2002 decision that banned them.
She is also running for “truth in taxation.” While the County Commission has not raised the property tax rate in eight years, property values have risen, resulting in residents paying more under the same rate.
“It’s time for a small business owner to represent those who have had to worry whether they’re going to get a paycheck and those who have worried if they were going to be able to make payroll,” Vasquez’s website states. “It’s time for the Commission to have balance instead of predominantly career politicians.”
The two are close in fundraising, with Justice bringing in $101,564 in contributions and Vasquez raising $80,472.
In an email, Vasquez said she has been spreading her message by meeting with voters on their terms “in person, by Zoom and hosted events.”
“I am often recognized most for my signage countywide and flattered by the individuals that introduce themselves to me in my everyday life,” she said.
But Vasquez has skipped some of the advocacy organization interviews and events that Justice has participated in virtually, like the Women Talk Black forum, League of Women Voters St. Petersburg interview and Suncoast Tiger Bay forum.
Vasquez did not answer a question asking for her stance on county’s mask ordinance, which since June has a required face coverings in most indoor public places to slow the spread of coronavirus. But she has criticized commissioners for their response to anti-mask advocates, who have been flooding Justice with phone calls and emails in support of Vasquez.
Justice said his support of the ordinance is based on the advice of scientists and health professionals and he is unwilling to compromise safety for “the loudest voices in the room.” But he acknowledged the presidential race could drive turnout and create more of a partisan divide in the local race.
Vasquez sports a “Make America Great Again” sweatshirt in a photo on her website, a nod to President Donald Trump’s slogan, but said “who you choose for President has little to do with our county government.”