What distinguished the fourth forum for candidates in the race for St. Petersburg Mayor was the first appearance of Paul Congemi.
In that one-hour City Hall debate, hosted Tuesday evening by the League of Women Voters, the perennial gadfly managed to insult nearly every other candidate on the ballot, as well as their supporters.
The room itself was the smallest venue to date for what has, in the course of the past month, become the most entertaining drama in town.
Nevertheless, the evening’s event included few notable moments, other than some jaw dropping comments by Congemi and some occasional chants of reparations by Uhuru members in the audience who were supporting Jesse Nevel.
In all, six candidates had their place under the lights, in what could be the last full lineup of candidates on stage at the same time before the Aug. 29 primary election.
Next Tuesday night’s debate — the Tampa Bay Times/ Bay News 9 extravaganza televised throughout the Tampa Bay area — will be a notably duller affair.
For one, only Rick Baker and Rick Kriseman are invited, joined by their respective entourages.
In 2013, the St. Pete Pier was one of the major issues in the race. Four years later, the escalating price tag for an original $46 million project has raised plenty of concerns, especially considering what some see as more urgent issues — infrastructure repairs and affordable housing.
Congemi still yearned for the old inverted pyramid Pier, saying the millions allocated for it was classic “tax and spend left-wing liberalism.”
Baker said that like the committee that was chosen to pick a design, he preferred Destination St. Pete, which was overlooked at the end of the process by Kriseman. Baker didn’t like the landslide improvements that have been added to the concept, instead preferring to build a Dell Holmes Park-style playground in Spa Beach.
Anthony Cates III did not support adding more funds to the project.
“This is your tax dollars. This money is yours,” Cates said and that the city should focus on education, economic development, and infrastructure in the city’s impoverished areas.
“What really troubles me is why they have to always have consultants from New York and everywhere else, come and design for my community and my city,” wondered Theresa “Mama Tee” Lassiter, saying there were plenty of qualified creative people already indigenous to the area.
Meanwhile, Nevel kept up his caustic takedowns of the “Ricks.” When it came to gentrification, he said that in his eyes, both men were equally guilty.
“Baker under the gneiss of revitalization, presided over the gentrification of the South side,” Nevel said, specifically referring to the displacement of families in Bartlett Park that he said was labeled by a think tank as one of the worst displays of gentrification.
“And Kriseman ran on the promise that he would continue that legacy, and he has,” he added.
Lassiter took a shot at the environmental community when talking about educating all members of the community regarding the dangers of global warming.
“I’m appalled that only Darden Rice and … the Sierra Club, they’re not reaching out to the entire city,” she said.
The most stunning moment was when Congemi, looking out at the Uhuru members in the audience cheering Nevel, went to an entirely different level.
“Mr. Nevel, you and your people, talk about reparations,” he began. “The reparations that you talk about, Mr. Nevel, your people already got your reparations. Your reparations came in the form of a man named Barack Obama … ” as groans and shouts came from the audience.
“My advice to you is,” he added, “if you don’t like it here in America, planes leave every hour from Tampa airport. Go back to Africa!”
Nevel immediately shouted “non-factor,” telling his supporters to hold their fire and concentrate on the Ricks.
A moment later, Baker admonished Congemi for his comment.
“I know we’re not supposed to respond to other things, but I first have to specifically reject the comments Mr. Congemi just made,” Baker said. “I just think that in 2017 in St. Petersburg, Florida, I never would have dreamed we would hear comments like that in a mayoral debate.”
On the issue of crime in the city, Cates talked about how different chemicals in the water supply affects the chemical balance in the brain.
“In case you didn’t know, the dopamine hormone is in charge of your impulsiveness. It is in charge of your decision making and judgment making,” Cates said, adding that in addition to fixing the water system, education is always needed to correct the problem.
Sewage was again a topic of discussion, an issue that puts Kriseman on the defense.
Though it wasn’t noted during the forum, the Tampa Bay Times’ Charlie Frago had reported earlier in the day that the city had spent more than $611,000 on maintenance and repairs at the Albert Whitted treatment plant between 2011 and when it stopped operating in 2015.
The mayor calmly described how the city now has its plan in place to pay for infrastructure repairs, and he again noted how previous mayors like Baker never did enough to address the problem.
“There was an insufficient amount of money that was spent on repairing our system,” he said of 100-year-old pipes. “Over the course of our history, we didn’t spend enough on our pipes, our manholes and our laterals.”
Baker again blasted Kriseman for closing Albert Whitted in 2015. “I think it’s time for a change.”
When speaking about transportation, Kriseman again invoked the mantra which other Tampa Bay-area local and state lawmakers have lamented in recent years — the lack of big cities to place tax referendums on the ballot to pay for transit issues. There is little to zero proof that the GOP-led Legislature in Tallahassee would ever approve such a measure, however.
Before the night was over, though, Congemi also got in a gratuitous non-sequitur about Baker, saying the former mayor is a wealthy man who “doesn’t need the job.”
“In my opinion, he’s running for mayor again out of greed,” Congemi mused. “He wants more money … I frankly think he doesn’t give a damn about the city.”
And so it went, and though the comments by Congemi, in particular, make the argument that the debates should be limited to the “major” candidates,” one couldn’t think that next week’s televised debate sans Nevel will be a much less exciting affair.
It will be the “Jim Crow debate” (to use Nevel’s inimitable phrase) that takes place at the Palladium Tuesday at 7 p.m.