Should a White candidate run in a predominantly Black school district?
That was the most controversial question candidates for Florida’s House District 70 faced Wednesday during a Suncoast Tiger Bay meeting online.
Keisha Bell, Michelle Grimsley, Mark Oliver and Michele Rayner, all Democrats, are battling it out in the Aug. 18 primary. HD 70 covers parts of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties, including south St. Petersburg.
The district overlaps with Pinellas County Schools District 7, a predominantly Black district with some of the county’s most challenged public schools. Four candidates are running to replace Rene Flowers who is running for County Commission. One of the candidates, former St. Pete City Council member Karl Nurse, is white. If he wins, the Pinellas County School Board wouldn’t have a single person of color on the dais.
The question for the HD 70 candidates: Should voters be colorblind in how they choose candidates, or should Nurse step aside?
Rayner was the first to answer, emphasizing the need for diversity, but also the right of every candidate to run.
“I am never going to tell anyone that they should not run,” Rayner said. “But I will say that representation matters…So do I think there is benefit in having a diverse board? Absolutely.”
All the candidates echoed Rayner’s sentiments, speaking on the importance of representation, but also emphasizing the freedom for anyone to run and allowing voters to decide.
“Diversity matters,” Oliver said. “At the end of the day, the voters are going to decide… It comes down to our community, us working alongside each other.”
The conversation evolved into broader debate about systemic racism in Pinellas County and whether they supported the defund the police movement to reduce implicit bias in law enforcement, which trickles down into the school system where law enforcement officers are on hand at all public school campuses.
All four candidates adamantly agreed systemic racism exists in Pinellas. However, answers varied on whether officials should reallocate some law enforcement funding to other services.
“If we’re going to put money elsewhere, we need to put it on mental health,” Oliver said. “I am not for abolishing the police, we (have) got to focus in on building community relationships.”
Candidates Bell and Grimsley also favored redirecting funding into community organizations and diversion programs.
“With defunding police, I believe that is about redirecting and reallocating funding to our minority communities and diversion programs,” Grimsley said.
Gentrification within HD 70 was also a point of discussion, with candidates expressing need for better education and access to home ownership in the community.
“We need to have more discussions on how real [gentrification] is,” Bell said. “We need to increase education for individuals wanting to own homes, and also for individuals wanting to keep homes.”
Oliver touted rent control and said the government can aid in higher homeownership by working with banks and educating the community on property value. He also said local businesses should be included in development contracts and the community should have a role in determining what those projects look like.
“We see it happen, especially right here in St. Pete, with all the high rises coming in and our community being pushed out,” Oliver said.
The HD 70 race is open. Incumbent Rep. Wengay Newton is stepping down to run for Pinellas County Commission.