Barbara Banno left her post as a Gulfport City Council member resolved to start a family. Public service just didn’t fit into that equation. But things change and now she’s running for mayor.
Banno has lived in Gulfport for nearly 10 years. She owns Stella’s, a popular breakfast and lunch joint in downtown named after her aunt. She served on Gulfport City Council for one term and, in 2013, decided not to run for re-election.
She and her partner at the time decided they wanted to adopt a child. But the adoption fell through. Even though it was just a few years ago, adoption for same-sex couples was a daunting process.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Banno said. “I’m in a much better place now.”
Shortly after the adoption fell through, Banno and her partner split up. Now she’s in a new relationship, one she describes as both happy and healthy. And that’s one of the reasons she’s trying to jump back into the world of politics.
“I love politics,” Banno said. “And I understand the process.”
But it wasn’t just Banno’s change in life circumstances that led to her resurgence in the Gulfport politishpere. It was recent events that left her disheartened at the leadership at City Hall.
It all started in August when the city of St. Petersburg, Gulfport’s neighbors to the East, dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into Clam Bayou, which sits right between the two municipalities.
The result was contaminated water that left Gulfport’s beach, its mecca for residents and visitors, closed and unsafe to swim. The beach and other areas affected by contaminated water still close frequently. Banno attributes that to the sewage dump. However, the city of St. Pete received a report in December from Environmental Consulting and Technology, a company based in Gainesville, showing that pollution levels in Clam Bayou where sewage was dumped had gone back to safe levels. It showed acceptable levels of fecal coliform and found that any levels in the water did not appear to be of human origin, meaning the contaminants were not from the sewage.
But Banno still thinks too little is being done on the issue in Gulfport. Banno said the city has seemed complacent on just letting time heal the dirty waters left by August’s heavy rain event and subsequent sewage dump. Instead, she wants to see Gulfport utilize its local resources in the scientific community such as Eckerd College and the University of South Florida St. Pete.
“Is there testing that we can do and really understand how damaging this was,” Banno said she wants to find out. “Then we can figure out if there are things that we can do to clean Clam Bayou.
She said Gulfport Beach is closed about twice a month now. And Clam Bayou opens and closes periodically affected by bad weather and changing tides.
Gulfport is currently trying to reach an agreement with St. Pete that serves as a promise that something like the Clam Bayou dump won’t happen again, but, according to Banno, St. Pete keeps coming back with watered down versions of what Gulfport is asking for.
She said it seems like Gulfport officials are worried too much about diplomacy with St. Pete and not enough about solving the issue and ensuring it never happens again.
“The residents of Gulfport deserve better,” Banno said.
So now Banno spends her time reaching out to residents telling them who she is and what she wants to do. During the month of September Banno raked in more than $6,600 in December. Sam Henderson, the incumbent mayor, didn’t raise a dime.
The two will appear as a down-ballot race on the March 15 Presidential Preference Primary. That means voter turnout numbers in the small municipal election will be much higher, likely double, the usual turnout.
For some that would be daunting as a candidate challenging an incumbent who carries an inherent advantage. But Banno sees it as an opportunity.
“I want to get as many people to the polls as possible,” Banno said.
And she’s not just relying on the Presidential Preference Primary to churn numbers. Banno said she’s engaging independent voters who may not even realize they can vote in this election. Florida is a closed Primary state, which means only Democrats and Republicans will cast ballots for presidential candidates. But that doesn’t mean they can’t vote on municipal issues or other non-Primary-related issues.
Banno is holding a campaign event at 3 p.m. Feb. 6 . The “Pork, Ribs and Politics” event is at Smokin’ J’s on Gulfport Boulevard and 52nd Street. James O’Neill and the Silver Shadows will perform live music.
Though Gulfport City elections are nonpartisan, both Banno and Henderson are Democrats in a city that leans heavily to the left.