In a city council district that combines the gleaming condos and upscale eateries of downtown with some of St. Petersburg’s poorest neighborhoods, a young, Black political activist is challenging an established incumbent council member.
That District 6 incumbent, Gina Driscoll, looks like the frontrunner over comparatively little known, first-time candidate Mhariel Summers.
But racial representation and the future of the city’s Midtown area are at issue.
And several local Black elected officials, including two of Driscoll’s council colleagues, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Deborah Figgs-Sanders, have endorsed Summers, even though she looks like a long shot.
Summers, a lifelong south St. Pete resident, says Driscoll, a former tourism industry executive, hasn’t paid enough attention to Midtown’s problems.
Driscoll vehemently denies that, listing initiatives she has pushed that she says are boosting affordable housing and minority-owned businesses.
Summers faces a major obstacle in the Nov. 2 general election.
She acknowledges her support base is in the Black community, but under St. Petersburg’s unusual election system, she’ll have to battle Driscoll citywide.
All eight council members represent districts, and only district voters vote in each district’s primary. But then the top two in each district face each other in a citywide general election.
Summers says many of her supporters who live in other districts don’t even realize they’ll be eligible to vote for her Nov. 2.
Not surprisingly, Summers favors, and Driscoll opposes, a proposed charter change for district-only council elections that will also be on the Nov. 2 ballot.
Both candidates in the non-partisan race are Democrats. But Driscoll has occasionally clashed with local Democrats and formed political alliances with some Republicans, including backing Republican Ed Montanari for council chairman last year over Wheeler-Bowman.
District 6 covers much of downtown but goes west to take in about half of Midtown, north into the Old Northeast, and south along the bay through the Old Southeast to the tip of the peninsula.
It takes in affluent, middle-class, gentrifying and poor neighborhoods.
Though its boundaries have changed, it has important racial history: The council’s first Black member, Bette Wimbish, and first Black male member, David Welch, father of mayoral candidate Ken Welch.
Although she’s a first-time candidate, Summers, 30, has worked as a legislative aide or political operative for Rep. Charlie Crist, state Rep. Michele Rayner, Sen. Darryl Rouson and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine.
Summers grew up in Coquina Key, daughter of a popular radio DJ and a mother who has worked 36 years at Walmart. She received her bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg.
Driscoll, 50, was sales and marketing chief at the downtown Hampton Inn until she left the job to take her council seat. She grew up in Dade City and worked in North Carolina before joining St. Petersburg’s tourism industry and has lived downtown since 2006.
Driscoll has been actively involved in downtown business and neighborhood associations.
Support from downtown business interests, real estate development interests, organized labor and some Republicans, including council colleagues Montanari and Robert Blackmon, helped Driscoll raise $101,671 for her campaign through Sept. 10, plus $77,157 for an independent political committee, Friends of Gina Driscoll.
After expenditures, Driscoll was headed into the general election with about $120,000 in cash.
That dwarfs Summers’ total — $7,859 raised with about $3,652 remaining as of Sept. 10.
That’s partly because Summers filed late in the race.
“I was waiting and watching for who was going to get in,” Summers said. When no one did, “I thought the incumbent should not walk back in unchallenged.”
By then, two of the well-known politicians she has worked for, Crist and Rouson, had already endorsed Driscoll.
Summers says she has a shot to win because, “Funding doesn’t always equate to winning,” and she believes she can appeal to other constituencies — “Democrats old young, White and Black, feel underrepresented.”
Asked what specific proposals she would push to help the district and Midtown, she talked about her own background: “I’ve been working actively in this community for years,” and said she’ll seek “equity that doesn’t have gentrification as a side effect.”
“We shouldn’t just look to national corporations run by white people,” Summers said. “The incumbent doesn’t have the communications with the community to foster a small Harlem, a small New Orleans.”
Summers said Driscoll “has been nonresponsive, not present” in the community and “champions resolutions, but not action. Tangerine Plaza’s in your district — where’s the action?”
Driscoll said that’s wrong.
“People who have seen the work I’ve done and the work I do in the community with our residents know that I have done a great job in making sure everyone’s voices are heard,” she said.
Driscoll said the issue most commonly raised in the district is affordable housing, and that in her first term, she pushed increased affordable housing funding, changing how the city incentivizes developers to build it, and new regulations to allow accessory dwelling units. She’s now discussing zoning changes under the St. Pete 2050 plan.
She said solving the seemingly intractable “food desert” problems in Midtown — lack of affordable food shopping options —— “will take more than just a grocery store.”
Driscoll said she launched the St. Petersburg Food Policy Council “to bring together non-profits organizations, the business community and other food industries to work on solutions together.