Two of the three candidates for mayor of St. Petersburg participated in a debate July 9 at the Metro Wellness and Community Center before a standing room only crowd of mostly LGBT residents. Current Republican mayor Bill Foster and Democratic challenger Rick Kriseman were on hand, while candidate Kathleen Ford, also a Democrat, was notable in her absence.
Ford had sent word through her staff to organizers that she had another appearance at a neighborhood association but would try and make the event. Despite organizers delaying the start time of the debate a half hour in attempt to accommodate her schedule, she failed to show entirely.
“I think Kathleen’s lack of appearance today says a lot more about her commitment to the LGBT community of St. Petersburg than anything she might have said here,” said David Schauer, a member of the board of directors of Metro and one of the main organizers of the event.
Schauer noted that both candidates in attendance had mentioned that outside their appearance at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club this was the largest gathering of constituents they had faced so far in the election. Ford also failed to appear at the Suncoast Tiger Bay event on June 10.
Before Kriseman or Foster could comment on Ford’s absence, an unidentified person dressed as a yellow chicken and holding a sign reading “Kathleen Ford too chicken to debate Foster and Kriseman” entered the room.
Once the chicken had quieted down, Foster addressed the crowd.
“I’ve spent the last three and a half years getting to know you and communicating with the public I serve,” said Foster. “The two candidates here today are running on openness and transparency, which is not what we are seeing from Ms. Ford by her not being present. But she seems to be only running on one issue, the Pier.”
“This is an important election,” said Kriseman. “Here we have an opportunity to hear my views and Mayor Foster’s views. It’s very disappointing not to be able to hear what Ms. Ford thinks. This is particularly true since there is very little information about her positions on her website.”
Rob Lorie, news director from WMNF radio served as moderator of the event.
Perhaps indicative of the question that was highest on everyone’s mind, Lorie jumped the gun at the beginning of the debate overlooking the initial three minute opening time allotted to the candidates and beginning with the question, “What do you think the impact has been from the St. Pete Pride celebration on St. Petersburg and will you march in the parade next year?”
Foster, who was first up, seemed unshaken by the impromptu launch into questioning ahead of his opening statement.
“I guess we’re going to get right into it,” he said with good nature.
He first pointed out to the audience some of his accomplishments as mayor including navigating the city’s finances through one of the most difficult financial years in memory, securing greater private investment and a strong city focus on the arts and cultural events. He pointed to the numerous cranes in the city skyline as proof of positive economic development.
Turning to Pride, he praised the economic impact of the event, which he noted has been shown to be about $10 million.
He said the event helps new people get the “vibe” of St. Petersburg and he praised the event’s impact on drawing visitors and residents together. However, he kept to the party line he has been quoted on frequently that he will not march in the parade because he believes the event is too adult-oriented.
Kriseman followed the same format as Foster, first giving an opening statement saying he felt that in his role as a state representative he saw that in Tallahassee that partisanship was often more important than policy, a position he said he doesn’t see in St. Petersburg. He mentioned that while he often disagreed with former mayor Rick Baker on some issues it didn’t get in the way of him helping move the city forward.
“This is an extraordinary city full of extraordinary people and my leadership will reflect that,” he said.
As far as Pride, Kriseman, who drafted the first proclamation naming June Gay Pride month in St. Petersburg when he was a councilman in 2003, simply said that the impact of the event on the city had been “huge” and noting that he has attended and when appropriate ridden in the parade every year since its inception.
He said he would march if he were elected mayor.
Later the two were asked what additional things St. Petersburg could go to become even more friendly to the LGBT community.
Foster said that he had surprised some people by supporting initiatives like passing a domestic partner registry and a human rights ordinance in St. Petersburg.
“I can’t think of a better city than St. Petersburg when it comes to showing respect for diversity,” he said. “I will continue to support anything that treats people with respect and shows the world that our city is committed to equality.”
Kriseman said he hoped that the city’s marketing department could be called upon to do a better job of promoting St. Petersburg as a gay-friendly destination for visitors.
“I don’t think we are doing anything along those lines right now and I think we should be,” he said. Kriseman also said he though it was very important that the mayor march alongside the gay community in the annual Pride parade.
Noting that Pinellas County has at least 3,700 people living with HIV/AIDS the two were asked what the city could do to be of more help with managing the health care issue. Both agreed that the city should continue to work with agencies like the Metro Wellness and Community Center and others who were on the leading edge of dealing with the disease. Both agreed that better education might be a key to lower infection rates.
Both candidates agreed they would like to see gender identity and gender expression added to the city’s human rights ordinance.
Topics were not restricted to those specifically of interest to the LGBT community however.
On police taking cars home
Foster: We are currently using a policy that draws a circumference around the policy station and allows officers within that circle to take cars home. That is consistent with policy that is used throughout Florida. The reason we do that is that an officer who lives in Bradenton might be closer to the station that one that still lives in Pinellas County, but is up closer to the Pasco County line. I think it’s a good idea for officers to take their cars home—we have a presence in their neighborhood then.
Kriseman: I agree. I think whatever cost the city might incur with officers taking their cars home is redeemed by the benefit of having the policy presence in the neighborhood.
On nuisance properties along 34th Street
Foster: Noted that the city has some legal restrictions in what it can and cannot do in shutting down businesses that have been deemed to be a nuisance, but said that a heavy and persistent police presence can help alleviate the problems associated with drug trafficking, prostitution and other nuisance issues.
Kriseman: Said it might be necessary for the city to go to Tallahassee to seek additional ordinances and laws that give the city more “teeth” in dealing with these issues.
On the Pier
Foster: “I’ve always said that I thought the people should have the final say on this and I’m glad the issue is going to be on the ballot. But spending $75-80 million dollars to fix the problems with the inverted pyramid to get only another 25 to 30 years of life from the structure is crazy.”
Kriseman: “I’m not supportive of the current Lens design, but we have been subsidizing the Pier to the tune of at least $1 million dollars a year. Even if we didn’t do the expansion or the refurbishing of the Pier the current design isn’t functioning the way we would like it to. Right now if we spend $50 million dollars on refurbishing it just gets us right back to where we are now. We need to find a better alternative.”
On planning for sea level rise and climate change
Both candidates indicated that climate change is real and needs to be addressed.
Foster: Indicated that sea level rise is being considered in the city’s waterfront master plan. Also said that sea level rise has been considered in the plans for the Pier redevelopment project.
Kriseman: “I’m disappointed that we haven’t really reached out to the local experts we have on this issue like those at USF and other institutions. We need to seek their input and guidance when we are looking at things like the Pier redevelopment and in the longer term what impact sea level rise might have on our entire waterfront area.”
On Mid-Town redevelopment
Foster: “We continue to seek joint agreements with Pinellas County, with St. Petersburg College and with the business community to revitalize this important area of our community. We need better signage to things like the African American Heritage Hall that makes it as accessible and easy to find for visitors as our downtown museums are.”
Kriseman: “I think the mayor has done a great job with downtown redevelopment efforts, but perhaps not as good with local neighborhoods. We need to have an equal representation for those neighborhoods and equal attention that we pay to our downtown area. I think it was a mistake to fire someone like Goliath Davis without replacing him with someone who had as much drive and desire to see this redevelopment happen.”
On increasing funding for public transportation
Foster: Supports Greenlight Pinellas and believes connectivity to Hillsborough is critically important.
Kriseman: Supports Greenlight Pinellas Initiative. “Transportation is critical to our economic development efforts and should include everything from light rail, to water taxis to ways to support bicycle traffic.”
On the homeless
Foster: “You will always have a homeless issue, but I’m proud of the way we have treated homeless people in St. Petersburg. My leadership has helped with the Pinellas Safe Harbor. I want St. Petersburg to be a place where if you want to get off the street we help you with the resources and tools to do that. Government doesn’t create jobs, but it can help create an environment where more jobs are available.”
Kriseman: “This one of the most difficult challenges we face as a community. We need to reach out to the state and other private agencies for additional dollars in dealing with this issue. At the core, we also need to do more economic development so there are more jobs available for people which can help get them off the street and on the path to self sufficiency.”
On police chase policies
Foster: “Our policy on police chasing criminals is the same as other cities in Florida. But we must always weigh the benefit of chasing a criminal with the risk it may hold for innocent people. We normally only pursue foreseeable felons.”
Kriseman: “There isn’t a problem with police chases unless someone gets hurt and people are getting hurt. I have a problem with some chases that have been undertaken when we weren’t even sure a crime had been committed.”
On keeping the Rays in St. Petersburg
Foster: “What I’d really like is for the Rays to say ‘There’s no Place Like Dome.’ We have been ‘making nice’ with the Rays and trying to accommodate them whenever possible, but some of the issues they face with attendance are not restricted to our team, but an overall problem that baseball must address. I don’t buy there is a deficiency in the Dome and I don’t buy this dire call for a new stadium every year. Look at the last few games with waterspouts and torrential rain going on you had a baseball game going on in 72-degree covered comfort. I want to work hard to protect the investment our community has made in getting and keeping baseball here, but could we replace the economic impact if they left? The answer to that is yes. The property where the Dome is located is an urban planners dream. Eighty-seven acres of prime downtown real estate could certainly be used effectively and productively for other purposes.”
Kriseman: “We should do everything we can to protect our investment in the Rays, but we might do everything right and they still might want to leave. Remember it wasn’t just a tax investment for our residents, some people had to give up their homes so the Dome could be built. We do need to think regionally here too. I’d prefer to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg, but it’s most important that we keep them in the Tampa Bay area regardless of where they play.
Transportation issues are important and we haven’t done as great a job of getting people from Hillsborough to come to see a baseball game as they have done getting people from Pinellas over there to see football or ice hockey.”
On the single most important issue to St. Petersburg
Foster: “Absolutely education. The mayor has a bully pulpit in helping to spearhead efforts to make education a priority. It’s also an economic development issue.”
Kriseman: “Economic Development. Under that category fall issues like education, infrastructure, good neighborhoods, and affordable housing. It really affects everything we do.”
Following the formal questioning there was an opportunity for those attending to ask questions. Perhaps the most poignant of these was when St. Petersburg resident Nancy Corporan directed a comment directly to mayor Foster saying that she was “offended” by his lack of participation in St. Pete Pride and questioning whether he had the right to ask organizers to change the nature of the Promenade just to suit his personal tastes.
Not only did Foster apologize to Corporan from the stage saying it was not his intention to offend anyone and that he certainly wasn’t asking Pride’s organizers to change anything, he made a specific effort to speak personally to Corporan after the event. While he appeared to be truly sensitive to Corporan’s feelings, Foster didn’t seem to understand that the Promenade is more than just a parade to LGBT participants, but a civil rights statement. If elected he pledged to attend, but not march, in the event again in 2014 with an open mind.
St. Petersburg’s primary election is Aug. 27 and the general election is scheduled for Nov.r 5.
The June 9 debate was hosted by Metro Wellness and Community Center with support from the Tampa Bay Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, King of Peace MCC Church and St. Pete Pride.
From our media partner Watermark