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Raucous St. Pete mayoral debate ends in chaos

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

It went downhill fast.

The first St. Petersburg mayoral campaign forum to include all the candidates on the August 29 ballot ended in chaos Monday night after one contender, Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter, got into a verbal dispute with an audience member.

At that point, moderator Pat Wood of the League of Women Voters threw up her hands and declared the debate was over.

What ensued was a scuffle among audience members that had to be broken up by the St. Petersburg Police.

The event, held in a ballroom at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront hotel, was verging on being out of control even before the six mayoral candidates reached the stage shortly after 7:30 p.m. They were preceded by an hourlong forum featuring the eight candidates running for the St. Petersburg City Council District 6 seat.

During that segment, there were loud cheers and occasionally disparaging remarks made by members of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, who have passionately expressed their support in all three City Council forum for their its candidate, Eritha “Akile” Cainion.

That support has often resulted in such loud cheers in previous debates that it has canceled out part of Cainion’s remarks, as was noted at last Thursday night’s debate at the Greater Mount Zion AME Church in South St. Pete by the Reverend Clarence Williams. 

Williams was able to get that crowd under control; the moderator of Monday night’s forum, Pat Wood of the League of Women Voters, did not have the same ability. In fact, after she sternly told the audience that those outbursts would penalize Cainion’s time to speak in the future, it only fired up her supporters.

This was the third time that the two major candidates for mayor — incumbent Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker — were taking part in a candidate forum. They were joined by four of the five other candidates on the ballot — Lassiter, Anthony Cates III, Ernisa Barnwell and Uhuru candidate Jesse Nevel. Paul Congemi did not appear on stage.

For Nevel, it was the first time sharing a stage with Baker and Kriseman, and he delivered repeated salvos trashing the two as part of a failed establishment which does not represent the people, at least not St. Pete’s African-American community.

Citing a 2008 City Council consent agenda. Nevel charged that Baker approved running a water transmission line through the dumping ground of a gun range.

“So we have Baker to thank for lead in your water, and you have Kriseman to thank for sewage in your water,” he sneered. “We need a new beginning.”

There were a few lighter moments during the debate — such as when the candidates were asked to name their top five campaign contributors.

Cates stood up, emptied his pockets and threw bills onto the table in front of him, indicating that he is his campaign’s biggest financial contributor.

Nevel’s response was angrier.

“I don’t have Craig Sher in my back pocket like Kriseman, I don’t have (Mel) Sembler like Baker, I don’t have these big money forces in my back pocket, and that’s why they won’t let me on the July 25th televised debate!” said Nevel, eliciting one of the loudest cheers of the evening.

On that front, his opponents joined in.

Bay News 9 will televise the debate later this month; it promises to be the biggest night of the campaign. Sponsors — including the Tampa Bay Times — have declared that they will use campaign fundraising records to decide who can participate.

While Kriseman seemed to laugh off some of the yelling being directed his way, Baker objected at one point when his response to a question about how to treat the homeless was drowned out by chants of “tent slasher,” a reference to a 2007 incident when SPPD officers slashed the tents of some homeless people.

“You all want your voice,” Baker shot back, “but you won’t let everybody else talk.”

Candidates were then asked if they would retain Police Chief Anthony Holloway.

Kriseman and Lassiter said they absolutely would; Nevel and Barnwell said absolutely not, and Cates and Baker stated that they would not make that determination until they were in office.

The evening ended when Lassiter engaged in a shouting match with Kunde Mwamvite, the mother of Dominique Battle, the 16-year-old St. Petersburg girl who drowned on March 31. 2016 when the stolen Honda Accord she was riding in plunged into a pond in a north St. Petersburg cemetery while being chased by Pinellas County Sheriff Deputies. Critics — including the Uhurus — charged that her death was at the hands of the Pinellas County Sheriffs.

As the shouting continued, Wood announced the debate would move on to closing statements. But when the bickering grew louder and spread throughout the room, she then shouted that the event was over.

“Reparations now!” shouted Nevel, who led the chant from the stage. “The Rick’s must go! Revolution is the only solution. We are winning!”


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 [email protected]

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