ST. PETERSBURG — At its core, the race for the District 3 City Council seat is a battle over how to interpret incumbent Ed Montanari’s record.
Montanari, who has served in his seat since 2016, cites his long record of city involvement, including on task forces before he began serving on the council, as demonstration of his competence and commitment.
“I’ve got a clear record of accomplishments in getting things done in our city,” said Montanari, 61, referencing his work to improve Albert Whitted Airport, create Albert Whitted Park and build the Salvador Dalí Museum.
His challenger, Orlando Acosta, a registered Democrat, said he was drawn to challenge Montanari, a Republican, based on his record. Acosta said it reflects an adherence to strong conservative values that don’t align with the wishes of voters.
“My opponent’s voice stands out (on City Council) because he’s a right-wing conservative,” said Acosta, 48. “My constituents are saying that’s not what they want in City Council.”
Both candidates advanced after an August primary election, which polled voters only from within District 3, which includes Snell Isle and Shore Acres . Montanari earned more than 70 percent of the vote to Acosta’s roughly 20. Professional brewer Zac Collins earned less than 10 percent. It was the widest margin of all three City Council primary elections. Acosta and Montanari face off in the citywide general election Nov. 5.
Montanari’s platform focuses largely on maintaining residents’ quality of life. He said that starts with equipping police and firefighters to ensure people feel safe.
Next, he said, parks, especially along the waterfront, are a key element to life in St. Petersburg. Montanari said he prioritizes maintaining city parks and creating more. He acknowledged that the quality of life isn’t the same for every resident, but said city services — the upkeep of sidewalks, streets and those parks — must be consistent citywide.
He touted his record working on task forces on the airport, the Tampa Bay Rays and the pier. He also said he has overseen infrastructure problems in his district, including work on the 40th Avenue bridge, wastewater lift stations, and the replacement of playground and exercise equipment.
“So I use those as an example of how hard you need to work with other people to try to find consensus on complicated issues to make our city better,” he said. “And that’s what I want to do moving forward, continue to do work like that to improve our city.”
He also supports the creation of an economic development corporation with the purpose of retaining local jobs and recruiting companies to the area.
Acosta, a former U.S. Air Force officer who boasts a progressive agenda that includes addressing climate change and campaign finance reform, has tried to paint Montanari with the broad brush of radical conservatism.
Acosta said he was driven to campaign based of his perception of Montanari’s stance on LGBTQ issues. Acosta invoked a 2007 then-St. Petersburg Times article that said Montanari, then a District 3 candidate, said he would not attend St. Pete Pride parades. The Acosta campaign also released what appears to be a screenshot of a Facebook post written by Montanari on Aug. 1, 2012 in which the incumbent said he was proud to have had lunch at Chik-fil-A. The restaurant company was mired in controversy at the time over its stance against same-sex marriage. Aug. 1, 2012 was the day former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee organized a Chik-fil-A appreciation day.
Montanari said he visits Chik-fil-A frequently and that his stance on LGBTQ issues has evolved over the years. He said he is supportive of gay marriage. He said he marched in the 2016 Pride parade and that he is “accepting and inclusive. ... even more so as time goes on.”
Acosta has also targeted Montanari’s record on climate change. Most recently, Montanari voted against a resolution supporting the Green New Deal, a massive action plan on climate change pushed by progressive members of Congress. The resolution, which passed with Montanari as the lone no vote, is a value statement and doesn’t come with any substantive City Council action.
“Value statements matter," Acosta said. "They tell everybody what you believe in, and they are an indicator of how you will behave in the future ... and my opponent’s value statements have consistently been contrary to what I believe the majority of residents in this city hold.”
Montanari said he accepts that humans impact climate change.
“I don’t understand how anybody could say that I don’t care about our environment,” he said.
Acosta also said the Florida Legislature has gone too far pre-empting cities from addressing problems like gun control and plastic waste. And he supports an endeavor that the City Council passed in 2017 to limit contributions to political committees, a rebuke of Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission, the controversial 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that removed restrictions on how much outside groups can spend to influence elections. Montanari voted against it because, he said, city attorneys warned it could expose the city to large litigation costs.
Acosta has also made a big deal of Montanari, an American Airlines pilot, having missed several candidate forums. Montanari would not say whether his day job prevented him from attending the forums, but said he also thoroughly prepares for council meetings, which can mean reading up to 1,000 pages per week.
Both candidates said they would like the Tampa Bay Rays to remain in St. Petersburg, and neither would comment on what sort of concessions they would be willing to give the team to stay. They both offered visions of a developed Tropicana Field site that would include affordable housing and business. Montanari said he’d like to see Booker Creek, which runs through the property, opened into a water feature. Acosta said whatever goes there should “heal the gaping wound in our city” left open from the destruction of a black neighborhood to build the stadium.
Montanari has outpaced Acosta in fundraising. The incumbent has raised more than $80,000, according to the most recently available financial disclosure forms. More than $28,000 came from those involved in the real estate and development industries. Montanari said he doesn’t pander to donors and accepts contributions from those who support him.
He is endorsed by a bipartisan group, including fellow council members and Democrats Gina Driscoll, Amy Foster, Brandi Gabbard, Steve Kornell, Charlie Gerdes and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, who is up for reelection; and Florida Sens. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat, and Jeff Brandes, a Republican. Additionally, the St. Petersburg Association of Fire Fighters, Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association and the Pinellas Realtor Organization have endorsed him.
Acosta has raised about $19,000. He is endorsed by the Sierra Club, The Florida National Organization for Women and the Stonewall Democrats.