Eight candidates for St. Petersburg mayor met Tuesday for their first major televised debate, and from early indications, the voters stand to benefit from the crowded and diverse field. By and large, the candidates projected an upbeat vision for the Sunshine City, a welcome approach to the Tampa Bay Rays, and a creative streak in addressing a range of matters, from social justice and climate change to managing the post-pandemic recovery.
Of course, with such a large candidate field, the hourlong debate, cosponsored by the Tampa Bay Times and Spectrum Bay News 9, didn’t allow for a lengthy conversation about the most pressing issues. But it reflected some surprising consensus on major decisions facing the city, while also revealing differences in style and priorities that certainly will sharpen before the Aug. 24 primary election. Here are a few takeaways.
Reset ties with the Rays. Most of the candidates spoke of the need to rekindle ties with the Rays. They also accepted the concept of a split season with Montreal as negotiable. While Michael Ingram, a 20-year-old University of South Florida St. Petersburg student and self-described progressive Democrat, seemed to condition the city’s support on the team remaining in St. Pete, most others were open to committing public subsidies or property to a franchise-sharing arrangement. The candidates, though, avoided specific commitments, reflecting the uncertain state of the team’s plans and the public’s appetite for rebuilding the Trop. Candidate Marcile Powers, a Democrat who co-owns Kenwood Organic Produce, said any public subsidies or Trop redevelopment plan should be put to a public referendum.
Trop remake a nonstarter. The candidates also said they would not be bound by Mayor Rick Kriseman’s selection of a finalist to redevelop the Trop site. The mayor is considering two proposals that emerged from competitive bids, and said he expects to choose a preference before his term expires in January. But his would-be successors agreed on restarting the selection process. While Ken Welch, a former Pinellas County commissioner, credited Kriseman for doing “foundational work” on the redevelopment, he and others want the new administration to decide, and most candidates said that can’t happen until the Rays provide clarity on whether they’re staying or going. The Rays and the Trop consumed half the debate, and the candidates mostly avoided taking firm sides, choosing to appear reasonable, statesmanlike and guarded about committing public resources.
Race and policing. The candidates gave only scant attention to race and policing, which was surprising given the demonstrations that erupted in St. Petersburg, and across the Tampa Bay area, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis last year. Whether that was a byproduct of limited debate time, or outright unease, this issue could be defining in the coming weeks as the candidates cobble together their constituencies. While former City Council member and state legislator Wengay Newton said he did not believe the St. Petersburg police department suffered from “systemic racism,” Council member Darden Rice and other candidates sought to make a more nuanced point, underscoring the vestiges of discrimination in housing, jobs and education. Whether last summer’s activism reemerges as a focal point for mayor remains to be seen.
The messaging gap. Tuesday’s debate was an opportunity for the candidates to cash-in on free media, size up the competition and test drive their messages. On that score, City Council member Robert Blackmon and restaurateur Pete Boland, who lack the name ID of some rivals, and who are solidly more pro-business, were impressive in articulating the lack of opportunity and roots of despair in St. Petersburg’s minority communities. Torry Nelson, a late addition to the race, needs to find an agenda to avoid being a distraction. And Powers needs to quit suggesting she’d kick major decisions to a citywide vote; this is an election for a strong-mayor, after all.
Voters also need to hear more about bread-and-butter issues, from taxes and housing affordability to neighborhood equity and the city’s aging infrastructure. Climate change is also a pressing issue, given the threat that rising seas and extreme weather pose to coastal St. Petersburg. And the candidates need to explain how they as mayor would take a leading role in regional issues, from transportation and job development to tourism and education. The expectations will be high in the coming weeks, and it remains to be seen who will break out of the pack.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.