While most of the country considered 2017 an electoral “off-year,” that wasn’t the case in the Tampa Bay region, thanks to the St. Petersburg municipal elections.
Here’s this reporter’s list of the top ten political news stories of the year:
10. — Bob Buckhorn decides not to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
For years, the Tampa mayor’s name was always listed in Florida political reporters stories about potential 2018 Democratic gubernatorial possibilities, and the mayor did nothing to quash such speculation.
But his ascendant trajectory took a significant hit in 2015, shortly after his re-election victory by an otherworldly 96 percent. First and foremost was the backlash to his reaction to a Tampa Bay Times expose of the Tampa Police Department’s disproportionate citing of black cyclists for infractions. That issue led to a variety of progressive groups to call for a police citizen’s review board, but the mayor initially resisted those efforts, alienating him from many of his Democratic Party friends.
Fallout from the failed Go Hillsborough transit effort also bruised his brand, to the point that by early 2016, all such talk about being a candidate in 2018 began dying down. It revived (momentarily) after a stirring speech to the Florida delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 2016, but very few people responded by donating to his political committee formed around his potential gubernatorial candidacy.
When Buckhorn announced in March he would not run for governor, very few expressed surprise. In the aftermath of Donald Trump‘s election, Buckhorn said he didn’t see a path for himself in Tallahassee, and he always wanted to continue to stay close to Tampa as his daughters grow up.
9. — Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan announces that the Tampa Bay Rays selected a site in Ybor City for potentially relocating and building a stadium.
If you count when news first leaked that the Rays were in discussions with the Rick Baker administration about an open-air stadium to be built at the Al Lang site in the fall of 2007, it’s been a full decade of speculation about where the Bay area’s Major League Baseball franchise would ultimately go.
The decades-long saga had innumerable twists and turns, to the extent that when Hagan leaked word that the Rays had selected the Ybor area, it wasn’t exactly an earth-shattering announcement.
Maybe because there’s a lot of doubt about how to fund this purported $600-$700 million stadium, and how many people actually care at this point? The Rays have suffered four straight losing years, but have an even longer streak of finishing dead last in attendance.
Owner Stuart Sternberg‘s announcement that he could see the Rays perhaps paying just $150 million of the final price tag was also a non-inspiring moment.
8. — Katharine Eagan leaves HART — Hillsborough PTC dissolves.
Transportation remains the biggest vexing issue in the community, a year after the Go Hillsborough proposal died without ever getting before the voters.
Eagan’s announcement in November that she would be departing as CEO of HART to run the transit agency in Pittsburgh was a tough blow for some transit advocates in Hillsborough to stomach, but nobody could blame her. In addition to getting a $40,000 raise for becoming the new CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny County, she was also going to an agency with four times the budget of HART.
“It’s your gain and our loss,” HART Board Chair Les Miller told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, adding, “I’m very, very, very troubled to see her leave. It hurts.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there are very few people mourning the dissolution of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission (PTC). The controversial agency, created by a special act by the Legislature in the mid-70s and killed by it during the 2017 Session, had become a bureaucratic behemoth whose public image was shattered during the two-and-a-half years that it battled Uber and Lyft’s entry into the Bay area.
While many other local governments around the country and the world had similar problems with what some call Uber’s “arrogance,” it was never a fair fight on where the public came down, ostensibly due to the agency’s previous reputation for corruption (Kevin White, anyone?)
7. — A killer stalks Seminole Heights for 51 days.
While not inherently “political,” the search for the person who killed four people in the half-mile part of Southeast Seminole Heights this fall became a national story that climaxed when McDonald’s employee Delonda Walker went up to Tampa Police Officer Randi Whitney in Ybor with a gun that an employee left with a co-worker.
That employee was Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, who has since been criminally charged in the deaths of Benjamin Mitchell, 22; Monica Hoffa, 32; Anthony Naiboa, 20; and Ronald Felton, 60.
Although some were critical of Chief Brian Dugan‘s decision to arrest a lot of people in Seminole Heights during the manhunt, overall the new chief (awarded the job full-time by the mayor during the search) earned plaudits from the community for his handling of an incredibly tense time in recent Tampa history.
6. — Hurricane Irma grazes the Tampa Bay area.
While there were problems with debris pickup and the electricity companies fully restoring power to hundreds of thousands of people in the aftermath of the storm, Tampa Bay lucked out (again) during Hurricane Irma, which barreled through the state on the night of Sunday, Sept. 10.
What had been increasing anxiety broke out into a full-on panic for many residents when the forecast for the storm shifted directly toward the Tampa Bay area late Friday night, Sept. 8. That led to a mass exodus that clogged the state’s highways for days both before and after the storm.
Buckhorn’s decision to impose a curfew in the city as the storm approached became an issue when Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill contradicted the action hours later.
Questions remain about who has authority to call for mandatory evacuations.
5. — The Women’s March in St. Petersburg.
The announced crowd of more than 20,000 people who gathered in the ‘Burg on that sunny Saturday in January was called the largest demonstration in the city’s history, indicating how powerful “the resistance” would be against President Donald Trump.
Meeting five weeks before the scheduled date of Jan. 21, organizers in St. Petersburg contemplated forming a crowd of several hundred people but instead were blown away when several thousand of people of all genders, ages and races gathered at Demens Landing Park before marching.
Organizers scheduled a second such protest rally again in January.
4. — St. Petersburg voters add two more females to City Council, to go along with three LGBT members on the eight-member board.
Being a Republican in St. Petersburg was never more divisive than in 2017, when Democratic activists rallied around Gina Driscoll as she easily defeated businessman Justin Bean in the District 6 City Council race.
In the August primary (limited only to voters who actually live in District 6), Bean took the most votes, while Driscoll barely survived elimination, receiving a mere two more votes than the only other Republican in the eight-person field, Robert Blackmon.
Bean immediately went on the defensive over his GOP bona fides (not helped by the fact that he attended Trump’s inauguration), as well as his issues with the law, which included a DUI and resisting arrest charge about which Driscoll and her campaign team were surprisingly aggressive.
The District 2 race featured two classy candidates, Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless. Call it the year of the woman (or something similar), but in the end, it wasn’t close — Gabbard, a realtor, easily bested Harless.
Council Chair Darden Rice vanquished her young challenger, 21-year-old Jerick Johnson, while Amy Foster ran unopposed.
Meanwhile, in December, the council members named Lisa Wheeler-Bowman as chair.
3. — Sen. Jack Latvala is accused of sexual harassment, resigns six weeks later.
Our world changed (perhaps forever?) in October when The New York Times published a lengthy story detailing decades of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against famed movie mogul Harvey Weinstein (followed up almost immediately with an equally devastating New Yorker story).
Numerous other famous men in politics, media, Hollywood and other industries were soon outed over allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior.
But the story hit home in Tallahassee and Pinellas County when POLITICO Florida reported the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 3, in which six unidentified women claimed the Clearwater Republican senator (and GOP gubernatorial candidate) had inappropriately touched them without consent or uttered demeaning remarks about their bodies.
Latvala immediately denied the story, and — unlike many of the men accused of such actions — continued fighting to clear his good name as the weeks progressed. The Florida Legislature intervened.
Almost immediately, Latvala’s quixotic gubernatorial ambitions dissolved, and after a special master filed what became the 2017 Florida version of the Starr Report, Latvala is a now-resigned senator facing a criminal investigation for quid pro quo, or sex-for-votes, propositions that surfaced in two earlier investigations.
2. — Rick Kriseman defeats Rick Baker by two points for re-election as St. Pete mayor.
As the six-month campaign ebbed and flowed, the race carried plenty of emotion, seemingly dividing the city between the progressive incumbent and his more conservative-leaning predecessor.
In the end, Baker’s goodwill — particularly in St. Pete’s black community — made this an extremely close race throughout.
Kriseman’s handling of the sewage situation hung around him like an albatross, with the Tampa Bay Times editorial page making sure it never strayed too far from the top of the agenda.
Sewage was probably not what Kriseman wanted to talk too much about, since it was clear his handling of it was not his finest hour of the first term.
Knowing that the city is growing more progressive by the day, the mayor and his team emphasized Kriseman’s liberal ideology, which became a major value in helping him.
Baker knew his vulnerability was in his relationship with LGBT community going back to his first two terms, with the Pride Parade, in particular, becoming an even more significant event in the city since he left City Hall seven years earlier.
And then there was Trump.
Simply put, the former mayor’s inability to handle the Kriseman campaign’s linkage to the Republican standard-bearer killed him in the end.
Baker simply could not man up and confess that he had probably voted for Trump, instead arguing the question was irrelevant, and federal politics had no place in a municipal election.
On a certain level, he was right, but not in the world as it is today, where everybody holds an opinion about the 45th POTUS.
Kriseman looked like a dead-incumbent-walking after an internal poll by the Florida Democratic Party leaked to the public in early August showed him trailing by 11 points. Conventional wisdom had most people speculating whether Baker would gather enough votes on the Aug. 29 primary to win outright, but Kriseman stunned the world that night with a narrow victory by only 70 votes.
Baker’s advisers say their polling showed Trump’s disturbing comments in August after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, changed the trajectory of the race. Anti-Trump sentiment trickled down and ultimately hurt Baker.
1. — Hillsborough County business and members of the public rally to get financial support to move a Confederate monument after the County Commission flip-flops.
In this saga, Charlottesville also played a part, because it was only resolved after white supremacists and counter-demonstrators clashed that Saturday in mid-August.
In late June, the Commission stunningly voted 4-3 to keep the memorial in place, unlike other southern communities that decided such monuments were a relic of the Jim Crow era — no longer appropriate in 2017.
After the vote garnered both local and national outrage, the board returned in late July, voting 4-2 to move the monument. Commissioner Sandy Murman changed her vote, with the proviso that it could only happen if the money to move the statue was raised privately. County Administrator Mike Merrill said such an effort could not be guaranteed, and the county would be responsible for raising the remaining funds needed if the private sector could not come up with more than $200,000 to move it.
Attorney Tom Scarritt, who had led the private fundraising campaign, found it tough going, with contributions not coming close to what was necessary for the move.
Then on Saturday, August 12, Charlottesville happened; Trump weighed in later that day — notably by not specifically criticizing the white nationalist rally and its neo-Nazi slogans, but blaming “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”
Contributions started kicking in, but only after the BOCC voted five days later to reverse themselves once again and keep the monument in place — provided Scarritt could raise the $140,000 required within the 30 days.
What followed was an avalanche of contributions; none was more than that from Bob Gries, the founder and managing partner of Gries Investment Funds in Tampa.
Watching CNN that Wednesday night, Gries learned the Board of County Commissioners reversed its position yet again on moving the monument. His $50,000 donation spurred others (including the owners of Tampa Bay’s three professional sports franchises that initially turned Scarritt down) to help move the monument.