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Mayoral candidates engage in a kinder, gentler debate

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Three nights after their latest debate ended in chaos, the candidates running for mayor of St. Petersburg engaged in a restrained affair Thursday night.

The most dynamic performer on the stage was Jesse Nevel, the 27-year-old Uhuru firebrand who blasted Mayor Rick Kriseman and former mayor Rick Baker throughout the 83-minute affair, while varying his message beyond a call for reparations for the black community.

Of course, he did talk about reparations, beginning in his opening statement when he talked about the Jewish roots that he shares with Kriseman, and said that after the horrors of the Holocaust, reparations towards the Jewish people were paid by the German government. So why was it was it so outlandish to ask for that to happen to the black community?

“Is it because they’re black? That’s the question that we need to answer tonight,” Nevel declared.

That statement was received with the familiar whooping and hollering from Nevel’s supporters in the audience that have been a hallmark of all the debates featuring Nevel and Eritha “Alike” Cainion, the Uhuru candidate running for City Council. However, at Thursday night’s event, pastor Clarence Williams laid down the law and said he would have none of what transpired earlier this week when the debate ended abruptly.

“That’s the last time I want to hear that,” he warned, and though the crowd still got excited and occasionally threw out negative comments during the forum, the event was nothing like Monday’s, when the LWV moderator never received the respect from the audience.

In fact, at the end of the evening, Williams called Uhuru founder Omali Yeshitela to the podium and thanked him for getting so many young people involved in the political process.

Theresa “Mama T” Lassiter, whose argument with an audience member ended Monday night’s affair, opened her speech by taking a jab at Baker.

“On the first of the month I rode around, but I’m sorry, I didn’t see a ‘seamless city’ in my side of town. There are no small businesses that are thriving like it is in the north side of town,” she said.

The majority of the early debates for both mayor and District 6 have taken place in Midtown, the economically struggling majority black part of St. Petersburg. That’s led to an emphasis on the candidates talking about their programs to help those residents.

During Kriseman’s opening statement, he talked about his time in Tallahassee as a state Representative, about being a fighter against the establishment, name-checking prominent black state lawmakers like Darryl Rouson and Frank Peterman.

Baker emphasized his passion for improving public schools in the city, and as he has done throughout the campaign, recited many of the programs he undertook during his tenure from 2001-2010.

On Wednesday night, about 50,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater spilled at the Southwest sewage plant near Eckerd College, not a headline that Kriseman was happy to see on Thursday. At the debate he said that after his staff reviewed the history of the sewage department after he was elected in 2013, it became apparent that “there hasn’t been enough money spent on that system.”

Baker said when he took over as mayor in 2001, he invested $160 million into capital infrastructure on sewage, and boasted that there were 16 years without a major spill in the city until April of 2015 after Kriseman closed down the Albert Whitted treatment plant. He said he will do everything in his power to reopen that plant.

“A 10-year-old could tell you if you close down Albert Whitted, you dump sewage,” Baker said.

Anthony Cates III said that Kriseman, Baker and Bill Foster had all dumped sewage during their times in office, and promised that under his watch, not only will there not be any sewage dumps, but that potable and reclaimed water will be safe.

Nevel got off one of his best lines when he said there really wasn’t a need for the Pier, a sentiment that is often heard in some circles of the city.

“Get rid of the Dome,” he said, referring to Tropicana Field, “and turn that land over to the black community to build economic development, to build the businesses that use to be there, and to build affordable housing. That’s a much better use of our time and resources than putting up another Pier so people can kayak around in the sewage.”

At one point in the debate, Nevel attacked Pinellas County Democratic Executive Chair Susan McGrath and St. Petersburg police Detective George Lofton by name, saying they both have accused the Uhuru’s of acting like “a domestic terrorist organization.”

And while that line may have intimidated some people in the audience, Nevel’s attack on the fact that the Tampa Bay Times has decided to move their July 25th Bay News 9 televised debate to an invitation-only affair (which was already controversial because they previously had announced that only Baker and Kriseman would be invited) only elicited sympathy from his colleagues on the dais.

“Not only are they shutting out the candidates, but now they’re shutting out the people,” he said. “Let the people in. And if the Ricks have any fiber in them that believes in democracy, they will not attend that debate on July 25. They will boycott that debate!”

To no one’s surprise, neither Rick said they would do that.

“I am attending the upcoming debates,” said Baker.

“We will continue to speak with all organizers encouraging them to open them up,” said Kriseman.

Lassiter responded by quoting from the 1972 classic song recorded by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. “If you don’t know me by now? You will never, never never know me,” eliciting some laughter from those who grasped the reference.

On the issue of crime, Baker said he is concerned about a rise in drug sales and prostitution, but Kriseman PolitiFacted him, citing the fact checker site’s verdict that his claim that crime in Midtown is up 30 percent was “mostly false.”

Regarding the geographic boundaries of the Southside Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), Lassiter has been critical that it was moved from 5th Avenue South to 1st Avenue North. But Kriseman said that the reason that was done was because there are much more robust tax revenues generated on First and Central Avenue that can go back into the district.

Regarding the failures of some major retailers in Midtown, Cates said he worked at the Wal-Mart six months before it closed, and said he never once saw either Kriseman nor Baker during his experience. But then he seemed to lose his focus, bizarrely stating that if elected, he would remain mayor of the city until he died, in which case his children would take over, creating laughs in the audience.

Two other candidates on the ballot, Paul Congemi and Ernisa Barnwell, did not appear at the forum.

The next mayoral debate takes place at City Hall next Tuesday night, July 18th.

 

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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