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Disagreements in St. Pete City Council race stray from the issues

John Hornbeck is critical of Robert Blackmon because of his profession and lack of a family. Blackmon calls that ‘insulting.’

ST. PETERSBURG — There’s common ground between John Hornbeck and Robert Blackmon, the candidates for the District 1 City Council seat.

Both candidates put the environment in their top three priorities. Blackmon also prioritizes affordable housing and infrastructure investments. Hornbeck has staked out a position as the champion of youth programs, and among his top three goals is keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg.

But Hornbeck’s biggest issue seems to be Blackmon. The lawyer spent most of a recent interview attacking Blackmon’s authenticity and viability as a candidate.

The pair will face off in the Nov. 5 citywide general election, the first time they get to test their different messages and styles with voters. This race did not go through a primary election because the third candidate, lawyer Scott Orsini, dropped out. The winner will take over for term-limited Charlie Gerdes in January.

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Hornbeck, 34, pointed out that Blackmon, who ran unsuccessfully in 2017 for the District 6 seat, recently moved into District 1, which includes the Tyrone area. Voter registration records show Blackmon changed his address in 2018. Hornbeck accused Blackmon of making the move strictly to run this election cycle, because remaining in District 6 would mean waiting until 2021 to run again.

Blackmon, 30, called that assertion “preposterous.” He said he moved to the west side for business reasons and to help his parents.

Hornbeck also tried to contrast his profession with that of Blackmon, a property investor. Hornbeck said being a lawyer made him better equipped deal with laws. Blackmon responded that most members of City Council don’t have law degrees, and that the city has a staff of city attorneys. He also said the council could benefit from a business-minded member like him.

Finally, Hornbeck said he is the better choice because he is married and has a child on the way.

“The people in the community feel that somebody that’s married and has a child on the way would be more knowledgeable and issues regarding families, women and children,” Hornbeck said, like addressing the gender pay gap, which he said is an issue he wouldn’t have been sensitive to if he wasn’t married.

Yet he could provide no specifics about how he’d close the gap from his seat on the council.

“I don’t have any specific policy that I’m planning on enacting at this time," he said. "It’s just an issue that I care about.”

Blackmon, who is not married, strongly rebuked that claim, calling it “insulting.”

“A lot of City Council members don’t have children and do not have masters degrees, or higher," he said, tacking on his feelings about not having a graduate degree. "That has nothing to do with running the city.”

Blackmon added: “That would be like saying because he’s married, he doesn’t understand LGBTQ issues.”

On city issues, the candidates’ platforms overlap. Blackmon’s top three priorities are providing affordable housing, preserving the environment and investing in infrastructure. Hornbeck’s top three priorities are making city youth programs more affordable and accessible, environmental accountability and keeping the Rays in St. Petersburg.

Blackmon said he wants to plant oyster beds in the city’s waterways, as oysters are a natural water filter. Tampa Bay Watch uses this strategy. He also wants to expand a program spearheaded by former council member Jim Kennedy to grow seagrass in Tampa Bay.

Hornbeck said he likes the city’s direction with regard to environmental stewardship, but would plant more trees. He also said he was pleased with the city’s commitment to spend $326 million to repair its sewage system after the 2015-16 sewage crisis. He said it’s important to address privately owned, old and leaky pipes that connect homes to the city’s sewage system, though he called the financing “tricky.”

On infrastructure Blackmon said he wants to see the city spend more on public works to add sewage capacity and improve streets and sidewalks. He suggested a rebate program — similar to one the city had for water-efficient toilets — to help homeowners with private sewage line repair.

With regard to affordable housing, Blackmon touted his record of redeveloping homes and keeping costs down for tenants. He said he wants the city change the way it handles abandoned properties to make it easier for nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity to get their hands on dilapidated homes and lots to refurbish them. He said he supports the city’s efforts to address the rising cost of housing by reducing parking requirements for downtown apartment buildings and easing restrictions on accessory dwelling units like garage apartments and mother-in-law suites.

Affordable housing is also on Hornbeck’s platform, though not in his top three.

Hornbeck said his first goal is making youth programs more affordable to “take the kids off the street, thus reducing crime, and put them into social and fitness driven programs” that he said would save the city money.

On the Rays, Hornbeck said he wants to work to keep the team in St. Petersburg as long as it’s financially beneficial to the city. He backs a modestly sized venue at the Al Lang Stadium site, and to build a convention center or corporate hub, or even a Top Golf, on the current Tropicana Field property. (Top Golf, which builds complexes that combine high-tech driving ranges and entertainment, announced plans in July to build a facility in Carrillon.) Hornbeck said he backs an idea spearheaded by council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman to financially connect the Trop property to the African-American community.

Blackmon, who did not include baseball in his top three priorities, said he wants to keep the Rays in the Tampa Bay area, and would like to see mixed-use development on the Trop property, including some workforce housing.

As of the latest financial reports available, Blackmon had raised more than $35,000 to Hornbeck’s nearly $5,000. Hornbeck said he injected $12,000 of his own money into his campaign account, though that has not yet been reflected in financial records.

Blackmon self-funded $10,000. He received $1,000 from the Young Floridians for Opportunity, whose website says it backs conservative candidates. His reports also show he received $1,000 each from the Realtors Political Activity Committee of Florida, the Realtors Political Action Committee of Florida and the Realtors Political Advocacy Committee of Florida. He also received at least $4,000 from individuals who are real estate or developer types.

Blackmon shrugged off any concerns that he is bought and sold by the real estate industry. He pointed to his diverse endorsement list, which include liberal politicians like council members Gina Driscoll, Darden Rice and Brandi Gabbard; state Sen. Darryl Rousson; and state Rep. Wengay Newton, as well as conservative ones like council member Ed Montanari, former Mayor Rick Baker and state Rep. Nick DiCeglie. He is also endorsed by the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters.

Blackmon said he sought endorsements from both political parties because he takes seriously the idea that the race is nonpartisan. And, he said, it means he can’t pander to any one group.

“If you’re really worried about my sincerity, you can’t pander to all these people,” he said.

Hornbeck, a Democrat, is endorsed by Gerdes. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said on Wednesday that he is not supporting either candidate, but that he trusts Gerdes.

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