ST. PETERSBURG — It should have been the easiest question for the Republican and Democrat facing off in the state House District 69 race. But for the two candidates squaring off against each other, it was actually the most problematic question.
The moderator of Tuesday night's debate, sponsored by the Crossroads Area Homeowners Association, just wanted to know who they were supporting for president — Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or GOP nominee Donald Trump — and why.
But neither state Rep. Kathleen Peters, nor the political novice challenging her, Jennifer Webb, wanted to ally themselves too closely with their parties' respective presidential candidates.
"I have not answered this question," Peters started to say before a heckler interrupted.
"You actually have, at Tiger Bay," he bellowed, before the heckling was stopped.
"I reluctantly answered that I may not have a choice," she said. "Have I endorsed anyone, absolutely not …
"My focus is on the state and the problems this state has … I don't deal with Washington and its dysfunction."
But it was a question that Peters and other local Republicans answered in March when the Pinellas County legislative delegation appeared at a luncheon held by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.
Peters, along with her fellow Republicans — state Sens. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg; and state Reps. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole and Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater — all said they would support Trump as the GOP nominee.
Webb said she supports Clinton but did not elaborate, quickly moving on to another subject.
"I too am focused on this race," Webb said. "I understand why people are disillusioned with national politics and the state, because we don't have people who are fighting for anybody. We have people who have sold out to the highest bidder … and it is so frustrating."
During the debate, the two candidates answered questions about infrastructure, education, fracking, Medicaid expansion, gun control, the death penalty, gay rights and even about building a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Peters, 55, has called for a special meeting of state and local leaders to discuss infrastructure issues in the wake of the region's recent sewage issues. The official estimate of sewage released by bay area utilities during the storm reached about 230 million gallons on Wednesday. That's because St. Petersburg filed a report with the state disclosing that it spilled another 58 million gallons during the storm, bringing its total to 128 million gallons.
Peters said at the debate that she is not pointing fingers at any city leader, but went on to mention that one local city — obviously, she meant St. Petersburg — had reduced the number of sewage treatment plants online from four to three, and chose instead to spend BP oil spill money on ferry service instead of on its sewage system.
When Webb spoke of Tallahassee leaders catering to special interests, Peters told the crowd that she doesn't consider herself a politician. Instead, Peters, a former South Pasadena mayor who was elected to the Florida House in 2012, described herself as a "community person … a Little League mom."
But Peters also touted her accomplishments in the Legislature, particularly her efforts on behalf of people suffering from mental health problems. She told the packed room that she works for the most vulnerable.
Webb, 36, who is director of community partnerships for the office of community engagement and partnerships at the University of South Florida, also touted her commitment to community and said there are "substantive differences" between her and Peters.
"I will uphold our constitutional rights," Webb said. "I will fight against partisan politics. I want to represent you."
District 69 includes Gulfport, Madeira Beach, Pinellas Park, South Pasadena, St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island and parts of St. Petersburg.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes