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  1. Florida Politics

Mayoral forum has small surprises but avoids major mishaps

Candidates speak during the mayoral forum hosted by the League of Women Voters at St. Petersburg City Hall in St. Petersburg on July 18, 2017. Six candidates answered questions during the forum about their plans if they are elected to office.
Candidates speak during the mayoral forum hosted by the League of Women Voters at St. Petersburg City Hall in St. Petersburg on July 18, 2017. Six candidates answered questions during the forum about their plans if they are elected to office.
Published Jul. 19, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — There were small revelations, but no explosive moments Tuesday in what might have been the last mayoral forum in which all six candidates on the ballot participate before the Aug. 29 primary.

Asked to answer "yes" or "no" if he would support police wearing body cameras, Mayor Rick Kriseman, who previously deferred to police Chief Tony Holloway on the contentious issue, said, simply, "no."

His main opponent, former Mayor Rick Baker, broke the yes or no rule and said he would consider requiring St. Petersburg police officers to wear the cameras, joining their colleagues around the region and country.

Answering a question about a $15 living wage, Kriseman said he has committed to paying city workers at least $15 an hour by 2020. Baker said he thought the minimum wage should increase, but didn't say by how much.

The League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area moderated the forum in the City Council chambers, and it went much more smoothly than last week's event at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront. That forum ended abruptly after supporters of International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement-affiliated candidate Jesse Nevel disrupted the proceedings. This time, Uhuru supporters came out in force, but aside from several chants of "reparations" obeyed the organizers' requests to remain civil.

Nevel advocated for reparations for black residents as well as black control of the police. He said front-runners Baker and Kriseman both wanted to push black residents out of their homes.

"We're talking about gentrification, which, even according to the dictionary, is a process of the displacement of the black community from its traditional neighborhood," Nevel said. "When it comes to gentrification, they are the same."

But it was Paul Congemi who broke the boundaries of civility by criticizing Kriseman for supporting LGBT residents, whose sexual orientation he called sinful, and telling the Uhurus they already got reparations when former President Barack Obama was elected.

His comments provoked a brief outburst of disdain from the crowd.

Congemi, who has run twice before, netting a few hundred votes each time, later said his goal was to hold the city record for the number of times a candidate runs for mayor by the time he dies.

Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter, a longtime Midtown activist, said she is tired of the lack of economic development south of Central Avenue.

"I'm saying enough is enough," she said.

Anthony Cates III, who has run for mayor before, touted his work with a youth charity that helps get at-risk young people jobs. He said he would broaden that effort if elected mayor.

"The plan I have it is infallible," Cates said.

Baker and Kriseman rarely sparred in the 68-minute forum, partially because they were divided into different groups for many of the questions. Kriseman did take a shot at Baker's endorsement by local home builders. The mayor said that his support of a city zoning change that would limit large homes on smaller lots in neighborhoods like the Old Northeast and Kenwood was the reason builders preferred Baker, who leads in the polls and fundraising.

Baker had just spoken approvingly of the city zoning effort, which is before the City Council.

"We need to make sure, as we move forward, that we're maintaining the character of the neighborhoods," he said.

In closing, Baker spoke of his goal of creating a seamless city with the same level of safety and opportunity for all. Kriseman said the city needs to take risks and be innovative and creative.

"Tonight really is what democracy is about," Kriseman said. "With everybody having a chance to weigh in."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.