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The race for the coast: Jennifer Webb and Linda Chaney tackle environment

There’s plenty of partisan divide, but the environment isn’t one of them.

Florida’s House District 69 race pits incumbent Democrat Jennifer Webb against former St. Pete Beach City Commissioner Linda Chaney in a battle to represent parts of Pinellas County’s Gulf coast.

If reelected, the Democratic incumbent hopes to improve access to relief resources for individuals and small business in response to the coronavirus pandemic. She also wants to tackle suicide and addiction within Florida communities, as well as expand educational opportunities, including vocational and technical training programs, as well as pre-K.

If Chaney takes the seat, she wants to improve the local economy by lowering taxes, cut regulations and promote vocational and skills training to help displaced workers find new jobs. Infrastructure is also a top priority for Chaney. The Republican candidate is also running to lower health insurance premiums.

However, despite their varying platforms, there’s one district-wide issue both candidates are prioritizing: the environment.

The environment is a primary issue in the district, which covers Pinellas County’s Southwest coast including St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island and the Gulfport area. Water policy is especially important for the coastal constituency.

During her time in the House, Webb co-sponsored an environmental accountability bill, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis, which encourages local governments to establish a sanitary sewer inspection program. The bill also revised penalties for violations on certain provisions relating to pollution and the environment.

“We passed a huge water policy bill last year which was very exciting,” Webb said. “The Governor has done a good job of prioritizing water policy.”

Webb also secured $2.4 million in funding for district infrastructure projects, as well as $35 million for septic-to-sewer conversions and leaky lateral replacement projects. She co-sponsored an anti-fracking bill, the Florida Climate and Resiliency Research Program, and a red tide mitigation and technology development bill.

“The Governor made it really clear that he wanted a big water budget, and made sure that we’re investing in red tide research and everything,” Webb said. “Things like that, there would be a good amount of support from both sides.”

For the 2020 election, Webb wants to create jobs in projects working to protect waterways and drinking water, increase use of alternative energy sources and stand against offshore drilling and fracking. She also wants more attention dedicated to sea level rise.

While Webb has her record in the Legislature, Chaney also has a history of environmental advocacy during her time on the St. Pete Beach City Commission. While commissioner, Chaney established the first-ever Environmental Stewardship Board and was an advocate for preserving local beaches and protecting water quality.

One of the biggest issues Chaney wants to address is the dumping of untreated sewage into the bay.

“I even say that it sounds obvious,” Chaney said about the issue of sewage in the bay. “And I hear it come out of my mouth and I think, ‘Did I really just have to say that.'”

Sewage spills in the bay are a major issue — in 2019, 1,500 gallons of sewage spilled in the St. Pete area. St. Pete spilled nearly 200 million gallons of raw or partially treated sewage in Tampa Bay in 2015 and 2016, according to Spectrum Bay News 9. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has investigated those spills.

“I think it’s a multi-pronged issue,” Chaney said. “It’s an infrastructure issue where we have old sewage systems that leak, that have infiltration problems. And we also have possibly a lack of capacity in sewage processing, so that’s going to take work at the local, state and maybe even federal level to truly solve that throughout all of Pinellas County.”

“I believe we’re going to see that I have support from members on both sides of the aisle to tackle this, and that’s what it’s going to take,” the Republican candidate said.

The issue was a major campaign talking point in the 2017 mayoral election in St. Petersburg between Mayor Rick Kriseman and then-challenger Rick Baker. Republicans who supported Baker criticized Kriseman for sewage dumps under his watch while Democrats supporting Kriseman contended he inherited dilapidated infrastructure long neglected, issues his administration said they were aggressively addressing. The issue has since become a partisan divide.

In a St. Pete Polls survey, Webb leads Chaney 48% to 41%.

That’s one point higher than Webb’s first election win two years ago when she bested Republican Ray Blacklidge by six points in the district.

Webb is the frontrunner in fundraising, too, with a $136,220 cash advantage over Chaney — the incumbent has $165,991 cash on hand, while Chaney has $29,770.

The district has a razor thin edge for Republicans.

Of the district’s 122,157 registered voters, 43,728 are Republicans and 43,563 are Democrats. Another 33,141 have no party affiliation, and the remaining 1,725 are registered with a third party.

Webb flipped the seat blue in 2018. She received 53% of the vote to Republican opponent Raymond Blacklidge’s 47% — a margin of about 4,200 voters. She replaced Republican Kathleen Peters. Peters held the district from 2012 to 2018. She stepped down to run for Pinellas County Commission, a position she now holds. Webb unsuccessfully challenged Peters in 2016.

Chaney boasts several key Republican endorsements, including Speaker Designate Chris Sprowls, Sen. Jeff Brandes and Reps. Nick NiCeglieChris Latvala and James Grant.

Webb has endorsements from a host of Pinellas County Democrats including Kriseman, Pinellas County Commissioners Janet Long, Charlie Justice and Ken Welch and Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson, among others. This week she was one of just seven Democratic House candidates to earn an endorsement from the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a group that more often sides with conservative candidates. Meanwhile, they endorsed 78 Republican House candidates, but not Chaney.

Written By

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at kelly@floridapolitics.com.

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