Eight men and women competing for the St. Petersburg City Council District 6 seat gathered Thursday night at the Greater Mount Zion AME Church in South St. Pete for the second debate of the campaign.
Though the diverse District 6 encompasses parts of downtown, Old Northeast and Midtown, for the second consecutive forum, the focus remained firmly on the city’s southside.
It also meant — for the second straight time — Uhuru candidate Eritha “Akile” Cainion had enthusiastic supporters madly cheering, so loudly that it drowned out some of her own words.
The ovations led to an admonition from Reverend Clarence Williams, asking Cainion’s fans to pipe down only twenty minutes into the two-hour forum. The warning came after moderator Trevor Pettiford of Bay News 9, attempted unsuccessfully to ask for “respect” for all the candidates.
His request fell on deaf ears.
“She has a great message,” Williams said. “I don’t hear it, so I’m asking you to hold your applause.”
Cainion began by giving an explosive opening statement, with themes she repeated throughout the evening: South St. Pete’s black community deserves reparations for historic injustices.
“I know that my community has been gentrified out of existence,” she said. “I know there’s no affordable housing.”
Robert Blackmon renovates dilapidated houses in St. Pete, and objected to that description: “I would not call that gentrification, I would call that affordable housing.” That earning some groans from the crowd.
The candidates’ reactions were mixed when asked if they supported the 2020 Plan, the five-year, $170 million plan to reduce the crime rate by 33 percent and the poverty rate by 30 percent by the time the 2020 Census.
Maria Scruggs, the president of St. Petersburg’s NAACP chapter, said she doesn’t support the plan in its current format, but agrees with the premise, and says the strategy has to be about creating jobs with livable wages.
“We have continued to use economic development in this community as a buzzword,” she said. “Now it is time to use it as an action word.”
Several candidates, like Cainion, Justin Bean and Gina Driscoll, said the goal to reduce poverty by 30 percent was not ambitious enough.
“Thirty percent is not success,” Driscoll said. “One hundred percent is success.”
Corey Givens, Jr. supports the plan, saying it echoes his own ideas of economic redevelopment. But he said the difference was his was plan would be more inclusive. “We’ve got too many political elite bureaucrats making all of our decisions,” he said. “What we need is more folks who understand what our struggles feel like and look like.”
Givens also questioned how boundaries of the CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) for South St. Pete were created.
“Somehow they managed to extend as far north as Burlington Avenue North but it cutoff neighborhoods like mine, Lakewood Terrace,” he complained.
Jim Jackson reiterated his plan to have the Pinellas County School Board cut in half to better serve South St. Pete students, who attend some of the worst-performing schools in the district.
“I want St. Petersburg to just wall away from Pinellas County Schools that have never been able to educate African-American youth,” he said. “They’re still in the bottom sector of our society.”
later in the debate, Jackson also took a shot at the Kriseman administration, criticizing them for cutting funds for summer job programs.
The candidates also weighed in on the need for a grocery store in Midtown, after the failures of Sweetbay and Walmart.
“We don’t want anymore corporations or a form of capital extraction, we want economic development for our people,” Cainion said, arguing that only the black community can address the issues there.
“I think providing grants and incentives for the businesses in this community, the places that have been historically disenfranchised and underinvested in, is a role for our city government to get in there and lend a hand and provide support,” said James Scott.
“Big retail and box chains are closing all over the country,” Bean said, suggesting a food hub (a nonprofit grocery store) could be more viable in the area.
Driscoll bemoaned the fact that lack of grocery store in the area has prompted the city to give bus rides to another Walmart. “If that happened in any other neighborhood, people would be screaming their lungs out,” she said.
“We are,” someone gently said in the audience.
Driscoll also said that people needed a “living wage” to pay for their groceries when they get to the checkout line, though she didn’t say what she believed what that should be.
There are two more debates scheduled in the next couple of days. The primary election takes place on August 29, with the two finishers moving on to November.