The ongoing flood of candidate forums is doing little to differentiate between two candidates in St. Petersburg’s most competitive City Council race this year.
On the surface, Deborah Figgs-Sanders and Trenia Cox have similar views on how best to move the city forward. Both are registered Democrats. Both prioritize affordable and workforce housing, the environment, jobs and sensible economic development. Their ideas on how to redevelop the Tropicana Field site both include a hotel and convention center as well as jobs, affordable housing and a fulfillment of promises made to the community displaced by its construction decades ago.
But like many things, the devil is in the details. That was on full display Monday night during a League of Women Voters forum when the candidates were asked to clear up any misconceptions they believed existed about their campaigns and platforms.
Cox answered, albeit indirectly, that her campaign support, whether through endorsements or financial contributions, is not an indication of partisanship. Rep. Chris Latvala, a Republican, is consulting for Cox’s campaign. Latvala supported former Mayor Rick Baker, who is also a Republican, during his failed 2017 mayoral campaign. Cox has also brought in contributions from Baker allies.
But she also has support from Democrats including City Council member and future mayoral candidate Darden Rice.
Cox used the question as an opportunity to tell voters her bipartisan support shows she’ll be a representative of all St. Pete residents and she rejected any criticism that she might actually be a conservative.
“I have a desire to help those most vulnerable and give them a voice,” Cox said.
She echoed that later when asked how she would work with colleagues on Council if elected.
“I don’t look at boxes,” Cox said. “Embracing diversity is a guiding principle that I have followed personally and professionally.”
Meanwhile, Figgs-Sanders is mounting support from Mayor Rick Kriseman’s allies. Kriseman himself endorsed her.
But for most St. Pete residents who aren’t entangled in the Baker/Kriseman feud of two years ago, that difference will mean little. So where do voters look to single out the differences?
The answer may well come down to personality.
Taking a look at the most recent candidate forum, the bullet point rundown makes the two candidates almost indistinguishable.
On transportation, both candidates said they supported the city’s Complete Streets program, but both also said it’s not enough.
“They’re not as complete. Unfortunately, we have an issue with our bicycle lanes that have been implemented,” Figgs-Sanders said, possibly referring to a deadly accident in which a cyclist was struck while riding in the bike lane.
She said the local bus network needs to be more robust and efficient.
“When it takes an hour and a half one way to get to a job, that’s not efficient,” Figgs-Sanders said.
There were some minor differences. Figgs-Sanders said she wanted to see more electric vehicles on the roads to reduce the city’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Cox said the city should work on creating neighborhoods as their own economic engines so people could have access to jobs within their own communities.
“If you use your neighborhoods to create jobs … there will be less need for travel,” Cox said.
Both said the city needs to work with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to find new revenue streams to provide better service.
On Tropicana Field, both candidates said the African American community displaced by its construction should be considered in its redevelopment. Figgs-Sanders listed that as the first priority. She also wants some sort of marker or other commemoration for that community.
The two candidates also tiptoed around the concept of reparations for the African American community, a concept that is gaining national attention and was thrust into this election by a candidate in another race, Eritha “Akile” Cainion, whose platform centers on reparations.
Cox and Figgs-Sanders said the issue is worth discussing, but in a careful and deliberate manner. Cox said the city needs to determine a methodology, a problem that has long stalled the debate. Who determines how to distribute funds? What, exactly, are reparations?
Neither went so far as to suggest direct monetary compensation. Cox suggested access to education while Figgs-Sanders said a community conversation needs to occur.
Agreeing again, both candidates agreed that while downtown St. Pete is thriving, it’s also come at the detriment of some small businesses who have been priced out of the area.
“We have to make certain that those who live here can really enjoy it,” Cox said. “For the businesses that are there, fine, but there are some others who have been priced out because the real estate cost is so high.”
She said the city should work with local businesses to help them grow so they can be part of the growth instead of being pushed out by it.
Figgs-Sanders had almost the same response, but added the downtown growth should “come into our communities as well.”
Cox and Figgs-Sanders are running to replace Steve Kornell in District 5, which represents parts of south St. Pete. Kornell is leaving office due to term limits. The election is Nov. 5.