Charlie Justice wins tight race against small business owner in Pinellas Commission District 3

Tammy Vasquez, owner of Bark Life, challenged the county’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Democratic District 3 Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, left, and Republican challenger Tammy Vasquez, right.
Democratic District 3 Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, left, and Republican challenger Tammy Vasquez, right. [ Charlie Justice/Tammy Vasquez ]
Published Nov. 4, 2020|Updated Nov. 4, 2020

Two-term Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice won a tight race for his seat against small business owner Tammy Vasquez, who ran a campaign critical of the county’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

With all precincts reporting, Justice received 50.3 percent of the vote and a narrow margin of victory over Vasquez, according to unofficial results from the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office.

“This is the greatest job anyone could have is to serve the public, so for the people to give me that honor again I really feel great and look forward to getting back to work,” Justice said. “The national partisanship trickled down more than most thought it would to local races, even though it shouldn’t have anything to do with this race.”

The race was underscored by Vasquez supporters who have rallied against Justice’s vote for the County Commission’s June 23 ordinance requiring face coverings in most indoor public places amid the pandemic. Anti-mask advocates have flooded social media and commission meeting phone lines, pledging to vote Justice out of office. They also targeted County Commissioner Janet Long, the only other incumbent up for reelection, rallying behind her Republican challenger.

Justice, 52, also threw water on Vasquez’s platform that blamed 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’ later orders specified businesses as he allowed them to reopen in phases.

In an email last month, Vasquez, 48, declined to explain what she would have done differently. Vasquez grew up in Treasure Island and owns Bark Life, a dog grooming, boarding and retail business.

For a third term, Justice campaigned on prioritizing areas of poverty, infrastructure improvements and boosting small businesses and local employers.

A St. Petersburg native who served in the Florida Legislature from 2000 to 2010, Justice pointed 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’s campaign was boosted with $114,589 in contributions, outpacing Vasquez’s $85,671, according to financial reports.

Vasquez earned endorsements from Republicans like state Rep. Chris Latvala and Treasure Island Mayor Larry Lunn. But she skipped virtual forums and interviews with prominent groups like Women Talk Black, League of Women Voters St. Petersburg, the Sierra Club and Suncoast Tiger Bay forum.