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Gulfport incumbents come out on top during lone debate

in The Bay and the 'Burg by

Four candidates in two Gulfport municipal races squared off in a League of Women Voters moderated debate Thursday night. Though challengers gave a strong performance, the incumbents came out on top.

City Council incumbent Dan Liedtke and his challenger, April Thanos featured the first 45-minutes of back and forth while Mayoral candidates Barbara Banno and Sam Henderson wrapped up the night.

Henderson, the current mayor and Banno, a former City Council member and owner of Stella’s in downtown, started the debate cordial answering softball questions about their priorities for the city and how to help new businesses.

Banno wants to clean up Clam Bayou, a hot bed of controversy since August when the city of St. Pete dumped overflow sewage. Henderson wants to “put our money where our mouth is” by following through with promised projects like beautification projects and stormwater infrastructure upgrades.

When the moderator asked, based on alleged comments from residents, whether the two had a “gay agenda they seemed supportive, though still somewhat combative.

Banno, who is openly gay and in a committed relationship with her partner, said the question “hits home,” but was quick to remind that she intends to represent all citizens whether they’re “gay, straight, white or black, young or old.”

“And if anybody out there can tell me what a gay agenda is, I wish they would tell me,” she said with a half laugh, half scold.

And Henderson seemed to scoff at the question as well reminding citizens that while there is still much work to be done in terms of equality at the state and national level, Gulfport has made strides.

From there though, the gloves came off. The two candidates seldom missed a chance for rebuttal and Henderson effectively played on Banno’s inexperience as a mayor and past votes as a City Council person.

Banno displayed passion, business acumen and wide general knowledge of the city, but fell short on specifics. When Banno touted her priority of increasing citizen engagement she mentioned bringing back town hall meetings and workshops.

Henderson pointed out the city has both.

When Banno praised her accomplishments as grassroots from residents and local businesses in contrast to Henderson’s big names like the Stonewall Democrats and the Democratic Environmental Caucus, he was quick to point out, he as those too.

“I’m knocking on doors too,” Henderson said. “That’s how I got here in the first place.”

Then when asked about improvements to shoddy alleyways throughout the city, Banno suggested an annual maintenance schedule. Henderson fired back that there already was one and it relied heavily on input from residents and observations from garbage truck drivers who see them on a regular basis.

“We need to hear from you when something is becoming unmanageable,” Henderson re-directed toward the audience at Gulfport City Hall.

But Henderson wasn’t the only one throwing daggers. Banno blasted Henderson for a failed plan to implement a more robust system of bike trails through the city. Instead of taking it the cheek though, Henderson admitted the city could have done better and was quick to say he had learned from those mistakes. And then again, he turned it on Banno.

”You can’t go to someone and say I’d like a grant for something without knowing what it is,” Henderson said.

He was referencing Banno’s criticism that Henderson went “from conception to construction” too quickly. She said she’d solicit resident feedback first before applying for grants. What Banno clearly meant was that the city moved too fast without gauging public approval, of which there was very little. She most likely was not trying to imply the city should apply for grants without a plan. But Henderson managed to take advantage of vague language that is par for timed debates.

Though Henderson came out the clear winner in Gulfport’s lone debate ahead of the March 15 election, it doesn’t mean Banno should be counted out. She showed excellent business proweress and succeeded in touting her successful breakfast and lunch joint as a way to reach businesses on a personal level. Henderson tried to combat that by pointing out that as an employee, he understands too. But that argument came out dull.

Both candidates were well-spoken and performed well.

The story was similar between City Council member Dan Liedtke and his challenger April Thanos. But where Henderson came out on the aggressive, Liedtke did the opposite. He was ever the gentleman from start to finish. He didn’t hesitate to agree when there was agreement. When he thought Thanos might have been robbed on time during one of her answers, he wasted some of his own to make sure all was well.

And at the end he spent nearly half of his closing statement thanking her for offering herself up for public service and inviting others to do the same.

Similarly to the mayoral debate, Liedtke capitalized on Thanos’ inexperience in government. He had a specific answer and often example for almost every single answer. Meanwhile, Thanos often said things like “I don’t know enough about that” or “I’m not on City Council right now.” They were terms any newcomer should avoid at all costs because it reminds voters one candidate has done this before and the other hasn’t.

In some cases that can be a blessing for new candidates. If conditions have been particularly poor or if a government body has been plagued by scandal being the fresh face can weigh in a candidate’s favor. But Gulfport has rebounded from the recession gracefully. It has parking problems in downtown where there once was none, signaling strong growth.

On the only issue that candidates can really make an issue of, the Clam Bayou sewage dump, Thanos still lacks strong footing to make a case for unseating Liedtke who has been vocal in his criticism of St. Pete and advocacy for his own city. Both candidates concurred their needs to be an agreement from St. Pete not to ever let another Clam Bayou happen.

Thanos failed to deliver any real strong responses to set her aside. When asked about vacation rentals, a problem the city faces with owners renting homes on short-term leases against city codes, Thanos issued a vague answer supporting both tourism and residents who may be bothered by short-term rentals without really taking a stance. Liedtke conversely weighed in with a personal anecdote about how inconvenienced his family was when a neighbor rented their home against city code.

When Liedtke deferred speeding problems to the city’s police department, so did Thanos. When asked how to help improve educational outcomes for students at Gulfport elementary, both answered that more mentors were the answer.

Thanos said there was too much red tape and that was perhaps stifling new business growth. Liedtke quickly said that’s not what he’s been hearing and instead gave a specific example of how to increase demand for new business.

If the two candidates were running against each other for an open seat, meaning one was not an incumbent, they may have tied the matchup. But in a climate where the vote tends to favor the sitting official, Thanos failed to present a strong case for why voters should opt for change.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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