‘It’s been tricky’: City Council candidates reflect, prepare ahead of St. Pete municipal Primary

Carlson, Gerdes, Hornbeck, Lee
Three City Council races will be on Tuesday's ballot.

After a summer of campaigning, candidates racing for a seat on the St. Petersburg City Council are in the final weekend before Tuesday’s Primary Elections.

District 1, District 4 and District 8, in addition to the mayoral race, will be on the ballot.

Florida Politics spoke with candidates ahead of next week’s election, gauging feelings of optimism and asking them to reflect on their campaigns. Despite their differences on issues, there was one thing nearly all agreed on: Campaigning amid a pandemic in the summer heat was, well, difficult.

Now, as they enter the first fork in the road, here’s what they had to say:

District 1

Four candidates are vying for the District 1 seat, up for a Special Election because Robert Blackmon is running for Mayor.

The candidates include financial adviser Copley Gerdes, consultant and breast-cancer advocate Bobbie Shay Lee, retired dentist Ed Carlsonand lawyer John Hornbeck.

Going into the election, all candidates seem optimistic ⁠— if anything, they say they had a good run. 

Gerdes, a Democrat and the son of former District 1 Council member Charlie Gerdes, and Lee, a Republican, emphasized the positive response from the community they receive when on the campaign trail. 

“I tell people all the time it was like drinking water through a firehose — it was a lot very quickly, but that made it a lot of fun,” Gerdes said. “It was great to learn way more about the city in a 60 day period than I thought, hear from the residents of the city.”

Lee recounted knocking on doors and reconnecting with her first-grade teacher and one of her first ballet instructors, 

“Every day, every single day, has been this blessing and surprise that I never would have expected,” Lee said. “It literally has been the most beautiful experience to reconnect with my community.” 

Carlson, the second Republican in the nonpartisan race, told Florida Politics in an email that he is “confident, excited, and more enthused to serve than ever.”

Hornbeck, a Democrat, shared similar sentiments, writing in an email that he’s confident but does “not want to make any predictions.” He added he wishes his opponents nothing but the best.

Moving into the weekend, Gerdes and Lee planned to do some last-minute campaigning. Gerdes’ team planned to wave signs on Friday and knock on doors Saturday. Lee planned to continue canvassing. 

Carlson is taking a bit of a different approach, saying he plans to relax, play pickle ball and get ready to celebrate. Carlson referenced the Supervisor of Elections Office saying the majority of voters have already voted by mail, and others have most likely decided. 

As for Election Night, Gerdes will have an election watch party at CD Roma restaurant. Carlson will celebrate at Athenian Gardens by Tyrone Square Mall. Lee plans to watch the results with close friends and family. 

District 4

The District 4 race has the largest candidate pool of all the City Council races. Five candidates are racing to replace City Council member Darden Rice, who is leaving because of term limits and is running for Mayor.

The list of competitors includes former prosecutor for Pinellas-Pasco Lisset Hanewicz, Raymond James executive Tom Mullins, bartender Cliff Hobbs III, tech entrepreneur Jarib Figueredo, and private equity consultant Douglas O’Dowd. Florida Politics reached out to Figueredo but did not receive a response by the time of publishing.

The race’s top two fundraisers, Hanewicz and Mullins, are both expressing optimism for Tuesday.

“We have very good odds of making it into the General Election,” Mullins said. “I think we engaged with the voters really well in a number of channels… We did a fair amount of old fashioned door-to-door retail, visiting with the voters. I feel pretty good.”

Hanewicz referenced the divided political climate as another difficulty in campaigning, in addition to COVID-19, but she said she felt she had cross-over appeal.

“I’m feeling great, going into the Primary. You know, this is the first time that I’ve run for public office,” said Hanewicz, who is a registered Democrat. “I think the environment right now is very difficult because of COVID. It’s added that level of difficulty, but on top of that, you have a divided electorate, but you know, I’ve gone in and I’ve gotten bipartisan support. This is a nonpartisan race, and I’ve kept it very nonpartisan, so I think that’s been very helpful for me.”

Hobbs, who has been campaigning for the seat for a year now, said he has been canvassing everyday for the past few weeks in preparation for the election, which he is “feeling super excited” about.

“We’ve been on this journey for about a year now, and everything is coming to a head. It looks like we’re firing all cylinders, and we’re happy with our performance,” Hobbs said.

However, he did add that COVID-19 made it difficult to find volunteers.

“The difficult task was getting volunteers because of COVID and the new delta variant. But, when we were canvassing, people were welcoming us at the door,” Hobbs said. “I always say canvassing is one of my favorite parts, because you just get to connect to people, and we were able to do that even during the global pandemic.”

O’Dowd took a bit of a different approach in response to the pandemic instead of knocking on doors, he only approached people who were outside and willing to talk.

“I didn’t knock on doors, because of COVID, and I only talked to people that were out in the yard,” he said. “It made a lot of other things more difficult, I think, simply trying to get out to get the word out on a personal level because I think I am better when people see me and contact me, and they get a sense of who I am rather than just through emails.”

As the weekend approached, Hanewicz said she planned on taking things a little bit easy, since the hard work has already been in motion. She added her team will still be out there, and she plans on being available. 

Mullins planned to do more door-to-door campaigning this weekend, weather permitting. Hobbs and O’Dowd also plan on entering the weekend with more direct voter outreach.

As far as election night, Mullins is working on lining up a spot for a watch party, while Hanewicz and O’Dowd are opting for a smaller events at home. Hobbs plans on holding an election watch party at Flying Boat Brewery.

District 8

Four candidates running in District 8 hope to replace City Council member Amy Foster, who is vacating the seat because of term limits. 

They include former Council member Jeff Danner, teacher Richie Floyd, optometrist Dane Kuplicki, and small business owner Jamie Mayo

Danner, who was elected to District 8 in 2005 and served from 2006 until term limits forced him out in 2013, feels good about the Primary, although he acknowledges campaigning was a bit different this time around.

“It was easy to reach a lot of people in a short amount of time,” Danner, who is not affiliated with a political party, said about his previous runs. “Now its a lot of social media, of mailings, phone calls, knocking on doors, kind of a one-on-one process, so it’s much more time consuming.”

Floyd echoed Danner’s experience with campaigning in the age of COVID-19, saying pandemic precautions along with the heat of the summer made reaching groups of people difficult.

“It’s been difficult at times,” Floyd, a registered Democrat, said. “It has been tricky. I will say though that even though it’s not ideal to do things over Zoom, we’ve made it work.”

Kuplicki, who is also a registered Democrat, shared similar frustration about COVID-19, adding that his campaign canvassed while following precautions such as masking and social distancing.

“That spike in COVID cases over the last few weeks definitely kind of changed sort of that dynamic with the in-person meetings, but luckily we got a lot of the candidate forums,” Kuplicki said. “When it comes to canvassing, door-knocking, you know, there’s been a little bit more hesitancy over the last few weeks.”

But, overall, Kuplicki said, the toughest part has been the heat, a sentiment shared by Mayo.

“Hot, hot, hot and let’s not forget the wind in May, oh and then we recently have storms every night,” Mayo wrote in an email.  “But again, to the best of my ability have put in the work. Covid has made things challenging, so creativity has been key and it has all been outdoors.”

Going into the weekend, Floyd and Kuplicki planned to continue reaching voters by canvassing and sharing their messages. Danner’s campaign will be doing a last-minute push of phone calls and sign waving.

On the night of the election, Floyd plans to gather supporters outside to watch for the results, while Kuplicki plans to host a watch party at Hawthorne Bottle Shop. Danner told Florida Politics he has not yet decided on a watch party.

Kelly Hayes

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 [email protected]


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