House District 61 candidates discuss their plans if elected at Tampa Tiger Bay forum

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The three candidates running to succeed Ed Narain in the Tampa-based  House District 61 seat debated at the Tampa Tiger Bay Club on Friday, and while the discourse was amiable, the emphasis on what is needed to improve the economic conditions in East Tampa were expressed with urgency.

Small businesswoman and East Tampa activist Dianne Hart has been on a roll of late, earning the recommendation of the Tampa Bay Times and taking an NAACP straw poll on Thursday. Unlike her two male opponents, she’s a native of Tampa, and specifically the gritty area known as East Tampa.

Hart is a proponent of increasing spending on early childhood education, more more focus on vocational training and more infrastructure spending. “Those of you who are in the city of Tampa and especially in House District 61, know that we have not had serious infrastructure improvements in more than 50 years,” she said. “That’s why when you fix one pipe another hole picks up someplace else.”

Attorney Sean Shaw is the most insider-based candidate, being a Tallahassee native and son of a former Supreme Court Justice (Leander Shaw, the state’s first black justice named to the high court).

“I’ve got relationships,” he boasted. “I’ve got the ability to work with people up in Tallahassee, because if you’re a Democrat, you have to be able to work across the aisle. Otherwise, all I’m going to do is sit in the back and throw bombs and have press conferences. And that’s not what you’re sending me to do. You’re sending me to get results.”

Environmental engineer Walter Smith also has a Tallahassee pedigree, as he was born in the state Capitol while his father – Walter L. Smith – served as president of Florida A&M University. Smith spoke about the economic divide between the thriving parts of downtown Tampa vs. the rest of the city, name checking West Tampa, East Tampa, Sulphur Springs and East Ybor City. “This is the area where we’re forgetting about those people,” Smith said. “We’re detached. You need somebody who is attached.”

During the Q&A, Michelle B. Patty – a Shaw supporter who raised a fuss when her photo appeared in a pro-Hart campaign mailer  a few weeks ago – attempted to setup Hart by asking if any of the candidates were endorsed by the Florida Retail Federation – which opposes an increase of the minimum wage to $15 an hour – a crucial issue in East Tampa.

“I have been endorsed by the Florida Retail Federation,” Hart admitted, before adding that the AFL-CIO is also backing her candidacy. “I am not a person to be bought and sold,” she said. “I’ve lived in this district for 61 years. I’ve advocated for the community for 35 of those. …I owe nothing to anybody for an endorsement. I owe it back to the district.”

The controversial Tampa Bay Express project is located in HD 61. Both Smith and Shaw were critical of the project, and how it was unveiled by the Florida Dept. of Transportation.

“We were put in a very reactive posture this term with the TBX issue,” Smith said. “My job is to make certain that doesn’t happen again.”

“The way that the TBX was rolled out was an atrocity,” Shaw added. “It was not respectful to the community. It was not a dialogue, it was a monologue. It was essentially dubbed as ‘community discussions,’ and they told you what they were going to do, and essentially it was to destroy neighborhoods that were in this district.”

Al McCray, a Tampa black conservative, asked the candidates their views on the Black Lives Matter movement, which he said he disapproved of. “Its a fact that 98.8 percent of blacks are killed by blacks,” Cray said provocatively.

Shaw called BLM a “wonderful movement,” but said that did not mean he also doesn’t believe in saying that “blue lives matter” as well. “I don’t think it’s to the exclusion of anyone else.”

Hart said that having lived in East Tampa her entire life, she has witnessed “black on black crime.”

And she said she had no problem with the Black Lives Matter movement, but said that “we have got to provide decent, fair housing, affordable housing. People need good places to live. Children do better when they’re stable, and we all understand that…when we increase the lighting in our area. When we do the necessary simple things in our community to make the community a better place to live, then, and only then, will we see a decrease in a lot of the crime.”

Smith paused dramatically before answering the question. He was the only candidate to criticize the police.

“We are expected to trust the law enforcement and other people who are charged with our protection,” Smith said. “And they violate that trust by killing us!…This is not a civil rights’ issue. This is a human rights issue. And so Black Lives Matter is fighting for something very serious, and very near and dear to my heart. And so anybody who questions the legitimacy of black lives matter. I’m so sorry for you. Because that means you truly don’t understand the history of people who are sitting right here in front of you. Because the three of us stand in support of something that is very real. And has been going on for generations.”

When talking about making any changes to gun culture in Florida, Shaw said all of the candidates were on the same page about reducing the strength that the gun lobby has in Tallahassee, and said it was about working with Republican lawmakers to get anything passed.

“We all recognize the problem. How are we going to solve it?” Shaw asked. “We’re going to solve it by changing Florida statutes and changing the laws. How are we going to get that done? That’s what being a legislator is. That’s what we’re asking you to hire us for? I’m the one to go Tallahassee and try to make those changes.”

In her concluding remarks, Hart took a swipe at Mayor Bob Buckhorn. Remarking on how he has said that when downtown rises, the rest of the neighborhoods in Tampa rise. “That has not been the case,” she maintained.

The winner of the Aug. 30 Democratic primary will automatically become the next state representative, as there is no Republican candidate in the field who has entered the field.

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