COVID-19 has shown us the importance of local governments. Since March, Pinellas County Commissioners have made decisions on whether to close beaches, institute a stay-at-home order and make mask wearing in public places mandatory. Now, it is the people’s turn to decide at the polls whether they think their current commissioners have done a good job. There are three seats contested for re-election on the seven-member commission: District 1 and District 3 are at-large seats voted on by all registered voters in Pinellas. In District 7, only registered voters within its boundaries can cast a ballot. Commissioners serve four-year terms and earn $104,725 a year. Votes for all three seats will be tabulated at the Nov. 3 general election.
District 1 (at large): Janet Long
This race, between a two-term incumbent and a former state legislator who ran unsuccessfully for county commission in 2018, will likely come down to partisan politics. Incumbent Janet Long is a Democrat, and Larry Ahern is a Republican. Anti-maskers have promised to make the candidates' stance on masks a deciding factor in the election, but Long has rightfully stayed strong on the issue, choosing science and facts. Both candidates have prior political experience on the state level, but Long’s previous eight years on the commission and her local know-how make her the right person for this job.
Long, 75, has served two terms on the Pinellas County Commission since she was first elected in 2012. She also served in the Florida House of Representatives from 2006 to 2010. Her priorities and interests include transportation — she’s a member of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority Board and a leader on the Tampa Bay Area Transit Authority — and planning for climate change, with her role as the chair of the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition subcommittee. Both of these issues are vitally important to how Pinellas will develop in coming years.
Ahern, 65, spent eight years in the Florida House of Representatives from 2010 to 2018. On Ahern’s website, he purports to support certain issues — environment, transportation, business — but advocates for balance. He wants “common-sense transportation plans” that don’t get rid of car lanes and environmental policies that allow “people to enjoy their beaches and boating.” But the ideas lack specifics.
Fundraising data shows that Ahern has raised more than $76,000, while Long has more than $148,000. The fundraising margin between two veteran politicians speaks to the nature of Long’s experience and her reputation in the area.
Long has a clear vision for the county and the political skills to get things done. Ahern hasn’t shown why he would be a better commissioner. For Pinellas County Commission District 1, the Times Editorial Board recommends Janet Long.
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District 3 (at large): Charlie Justice
The District 3 race pits a well-known Democratic incumbent who has served both state and local office against a pro-business Republican, Tammy Sue Vasquez, who says she wants to shake things up. Incumbent Charlie Justice has been on the commission since 2012. Justice is known for his attention to detail and his even-keeled demeanor, a welcome combination on a commission that at times is prone to theatrics. His experience and style make him an important part of the commission.
Justice, 52, is a different mold of politician: instead of making sweeping, passionate statements, he focuses on the granular, things he can actually get done. He is proud — and rightfully so — of his work in Lealman, where he helped open the Lealman Exchange, a community center meant to help revitalize the area. He champions his time as chair of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, saying the Tampa Bay’s water quality is the best it’s been in more than 50 years. He also notes that during his tenure the commission has been more harmonious.
Vasquez, 48, is the owner of a mobile pet grooming business based in Seminole, who says she would be a champion for small business owners. She believes in term limits and wants to advocate against “career politicians.” She says she has “fresh ideas on tourism, public transportation, infrastructure,” but those ideas aren’t clear.
There is some merit to the idea that newcomers can help freshen local county commissions. But there’s no reason to displace someone who has consistently done a good job and helped create accord. For Pinellas County Commission District 3, the Times Editorial Board is recommending Charlie Justice.
District 7: Rene Flowers
The District 7 seat came open when commissioner Ken Welch announced he would not run again, instead choosing to run for mayor of St. Petersburg. The Democratic primary pit three of St. Petersburg’s most well-known local politicians against each other. Rene Flowers emerged the winner with 52 percent of the vote. Flowers will face no party affiliated candidate Maria Scruggs in the Nov. 3 general election. Because of Flowers' experience, her understanding of the issues and her relatively concrete ideas, she is the better choice for this seat.
Flowers, 55, is a longtime St. Petersburg politician who currently serves on the Pinellas County School Board and served for two terms on the St. Petersburg City Council. She’s no stranger to countywide office, and she knows the ins and outs of the area. She’s also racked up endorsements from quite a few of the region’s political heavy hitters, like St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Commissioner Long and Welch, who recommended her after the primary.
But Flowers will have to be careful not to put her politics above her policy. Having friends in high places comes in handy when securing funding or resources for the region, but she must back up her promises with specifics. Flowers knows the right talking points, but she needs to work toward achieving her stated goals.
Scruggs, 62, is best known for her former role as the president of the St. Petersburg’s NAACP chapter. Her tenure there has not been without conflict — she was known as someone who was not always easy to work with, and critics took issue with her inflammatory social media posts. On the county commission, the seven members need to work together, not sow discontent.
For Pinellas County Commission District 7, the Times Editorial Board recommends Rene Flowers.
Candidates not recommended by the editorial board are offered an opportunity to reply. They can send replies of up to 150 words by 5 p.m. Oct. 10 to Editor of Editorials Graham Brink at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.