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Women, and black women, make history in St. Petersburg

The City Council never before had six women, or two black women, serving together.

ST. PETERSBURG — A city that has made inclusiveness part of its vision celebrated a milestone Thursday, swearing in two new City Council members who embody several firsts.

Deborah Figgs-Sanders joined Lisa Wheeler-Bowman to become the second female African American on the council. Never before have two black women served on the body at the same time.

Figgs-Sanders is also the first African American to serve District 5, which covers the southern tip of the city and includes Lakewood Estates and Pinellas Point.

And because Figgs-Sanders replaced term-limited Steve Kornell, the council now has six women. That is the most ever, according to St. Petersburg Museum of History archives.

The other new council member, Robert Blackmon, also made history. At 30, he is the youngest person ever to sit on the City Council, the museum said, and is the first voice on council from a new generation. He replaced Charlie Gerdes as the District 1 representative.

Robert Blackmon hugs council member Gina Driscoll before being sworn in to his seat on the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday. He is the youngest ever to serve on the City Council. To the right is former council member Steve Kornell, who completed his final term on Thursday. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]
Related: St. Petersburg City Council to lose “some big lions” when Gerdes and Kornell step down

Their additions push forward St. Petersburg City Council’s diversity quotient. The eight-member body now features six women. Two of them are black and two are openly gay. The age difference between the oldest council member, Ed Montanari, and Blackmon is 31 years.

St. Petersburg’s majority women council stands in contrast to those in Tampa and Clearwater, where not one woman serves. While Tampa City Council does feature racial diversity — three are Hispanic, three are white and one is black — all of Clearwater’s council members are white.

“We are so diverse," Figgs-Sanders said after the swearing-in ceremony. “And now our city council actually reflects that diversity.”

Deborah Figgs-Sanders (left) takes a selfie with re-elected council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman after they were sworn in to their seats Thursday. It is the first time in the city's history two black women have served on the City Council at the same time. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

Blackmon, who said he was honored to be the youngest, downplayed its significance.

“Age to me, it doesn’t matter," he said after being sworn in. "As long as your heart’s in the right place and you’re willing to do the job, that’s all that matters.”

Before the new council members took their oaths, the outgoing City Council held its final meeting, allowing for an emotional send-off of Gerdes and Kornell. Before a full room at the city’s new police headquarters, council members fought through tears as they shared memories, calling the pair inspirations and mentors. Both received a commemorative trophy in recognition of their combined 18 years of service.

“When I think of you, the word I think of is trailblazer," council member Brandi Gabbard said to Kornell, who was elected in 2009 as the city’s first openly gay council member. "It’s not easy to be a trailblazer. And you do it with grace.”

Gerdes earned praise from his colleagues for his faith and caring.

“You lead a compassionate life and you encourage others to do so as well," council member Amy Foster said.

Gerdes, as he is known to be, was the most emotional. His voice wavered throughout the meeting, and though he promised not to cry — lest his brother, Rob Gerdes, the city’s neighborhood affairs administrator, win a bet — a tear eventually escaped him.

“Rob, s--t, you won," he said. The audience clapped and laughed.

Kornell, a champion of equality, left his colleagues with a charge: root out discrimination and prejudice. He noted that when he was Blackmon’s age, City Council was not a possibility for him because of who he is.

“And that is wrong," he said. "You can’t afford as a city, or a state, or a country, to eliminate entire groups of people.”

Before Gerdes, who served as the 2019 council chair, adjourned his final meeting, he recalled a quote from Martin Luther King Jr: “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”

After a short break, the council reemerged. Montanari, the new chair, called to order his first meeting, with Figgs-Sanders and Blackmon on the dais.