David Jolly and Darryl Rouson
BY COLIN PARKER, Neighborhood News Bureau
ST. PETERSBURG –Candidates for the federal and state Senate had a civil discussion about local issues Oct. 13 at the Rock of Jesus Baptist Missionary Baptist Church. The forum included candidates for the U.S. Senate former Gov. Charlie Crist and Rep. David Jolly, Rep. Darryl Rouson and a late participation of candidate to the Florida House of Representatives, former St. Petersburg City Council Member Wengay Newton.
Each candidate shared their views on how to resolve issues that mattered to the community, from criminal justice reform to aiding the failing education system in the area.
The event was far different from the political atmosphere that has become commonplace in recent U.S. politics. The candidates could not blame, attack or otherwise harm one another while speaking. They were each given three minutes to speak without the risk of being interrupted. Consequently, the event was largely about the issues and problems unique to the local community.
Moderated by Trevor Pettiford of Bay News 9, the candidates each had a lot to say when asked how they would work in a bipartisan fashion to get things done.
Rouson explained his work with a largely Republican Florida House to pass bills related to education and preventing gun violence. “A Democrat can’t pass those things alone,” he said.
Jolly spoke about being the first representative, republican or democrat, to call for Donald Trump to drop out of the race.
Crist discussed his time as a then Republican governor and his use of the 2008 stimulus package, offered to him by President Barack Obama. Crist accepted the stimulus despite the Republican Party’s disapproval because he thought it to be the best decision for the people of Florida.
When asked for solutions to the availability of illegal firearms coming into the community, all three candidates expressed similar ideas.
Jolly pushed the need for stronger, more comprehensive background checks as well as a gun buyback program. He also said that the parties need to be more willing to work together to put forward a bipartisan solution.
Crist largely agreed with Jolly on this subject but emphasized the need for an assault rifle ban.
“Even as a proponent of the Second Amendment and a hunter, I don’t understand why we have to have assault weapons available to citizens,” he said. “We have seen far too many acts of violence across our country in the past year.”
Rouson shared his support for the “no fly, no buy” bill under which people on the No Fly list are unable to purchase firearms. The No Fly list is a watch list created by the Terrorist Screening Center of known or suspected terrorists that keep them from flying to or from the US or within the US.
Rouson spent $5,000 from his personal accounts to buy guns off the streets after witnessing the aftermath of the murder of St. Pete resident Cynthia Bethune in 2003, and now stresses educational programs on proper gun use and storage.
When asked about what they would do to protect the community from such environmental disasters as the local sewage crisis, the candidates’ ideas varied.
Crist mentioned a need for new infrastructure, emphasizing the need to do what is right for the community, and his support of Hillary Clinton’s “$520 billion plan” to improve it.
“Infrastructure is important, and one thing that the government can do is create incentives, so parallel lines are kept up-to-date,” Rouson said. “In economically depressed communities, folks can’t afford to fix plumbing that goes from house to street, and so the government must provide incentives.”
Jolly held that the sewage crisis was due to neglect from City Hall. “Jurisdiction is important,” he said. “The responsibility of sewage rests with the mayor.”
But Jolly did talk about his experience with this issue and how serious he was about it.
“My wife walked through sewage to investigate this for local leadership,” he recalled, demonstrating the lengths at which he and his spouse are willing to go to provide any form of aid that they can from where he stands in the government.
The candidates were also asked about the issue of declining quality in education. “Poverty affects a child’s ability to learn,” Rouson said.
He recalled visiting a school and finding a child sitting alone in timeout. Her explanation for why she was there was that she “couldn’t think today” because her mother had been arrested for drugs the night before.
According to Rouson, one size does not fit all, and the emphasis should not be on how to fix the school system but rather on what can be done to improve the child’s success. He said that education must become more creative and responsive if it is to succeed.
“We should invest in public schools, bring in high-quality teachers to failing schools,” said Jolly, who believes in providing scholarships for students so that they can attend private schools.
“Let’s empower families to choose where they send their students,” he said.
Jolly also emphasized providing workforce training in technical schools.
“Let’s invest in workforce training and skills training… that create the ability for individual students to graduate with a degree.”
Crist expressed the need to investigate failing schools, applauding Rep. Kathy Castor for doing so. He said that if schools in one part of the county are getting more than schools in another part, “That’s not right.”
With the question of increasing minimum wage and stimulating job creation, all three called for a raise in the current minimum salary.
Jolly expressed slight reserve on the issue, mentioning companies that, after being called upon by President Obama to increase overtime pay, cut all employees down to part-time hours.
“I think we need to see minimum wage increase… but also protect jobs,” he said, and “figure out in a bipartisan way how we do that.”
Rouson expressed the concern that once the wage is increased, people might be replaced with technology. This concept has already been done at Wawa and is currently being tested in some McDonald’s sites.
Crist added to this, saying that raising the minimum wage would provide employees with the ability to go to restaurants with their increased incomes and thus stimulate the economy further. “It’s not rocket science, but it is common sense,” he said.
At the end of the panel, the audience was allowed to ask the candidates questions. The first one was if and how they would stay in touch with the area.
All of the candidates expressed that St. Petersburg was their home and they would always return to it.
The candidates were also asked about how they would hold law enforcement accountable for any crimes they commit in the field.
Crist mentioned meeting with police officers in St. Petersburg who are using training to eliminate bias.
“All of us have biases and the training is to take those out. When you see someone with a hood walking fast people can reach an unfair conclusion. This training helps reduce that. More fairness and objectivity should be occurring,” he said.
“A crime is a crime whether you’re wearing street clothes or a law enforcement uniform,” Jolly said, explaining that no matter how much authority someone may or may not have, they must answer to the law.
Rouson felt similarly about police brutality, with an emphasis on his time working with law enforcement. “I got to see that officers are human.”
“I will stand strong for bad officers to be punished appropriately,” he said. “A good officer doesn’t want a bad cop standing next to him.”
Florida House hopeful Wengay Newton was late to the forum due to prior obligations but spoke briefly at the end about his personal desire to stop the over-incarceration of poor youth in the area, citing that they want the opportunity to vote and work but that those opportunities are not present.
“One thousand kids want jobs, and only 160 are available. Meanwhile, 600 to 800 of them are arrested that year,” he said, weighing in on the last question of the night.
Rep. Rouson’s and Newton’s opponents in the race John Houman and Cori Fournier, respectively, were not in attendance.