Before the Ballot South St. Petersburg Candidate Forum

L-R, Betty Reed, Rep. Darryl Rouson and Rep. Ed Narain battled each other in the Before the Ballot Candidate Forum Sat., June 4.

BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – The state Senate District 19 seat is up for grabs this November, and three candidates vying for Arthenia Joyner’s seat duked it out Saturday, June 6 at Childs Park Recreation Center.

Organized by the Childs Park Neighborhood Association and Fight for $15, the local branch of an international movement fighting for underpaid workers, the forum gave the candidates a chance to set the record straight on issues plaguing the community.

Rep. Darryl Rouson, who has reached his term limit in the House, first-term House Rep. Ed Narain from Tampa and former Rep. Betty Reed, also from Tampa, were all ready to prove their knowledge on the issues.

Gayle Rogers, who works at McDonald’s in Ybor City, wanted to know how the candidates felt about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour across the board. She expressed that she doesn’t make enough money to buy a car or afford car insurance.

Narain said he supports raising childcare workers and those working with the elderly to $15, but to only $12 an hour for others, especially when it comes to fast food workers.

“We have to be careful how we move that up,” he said, reasoning that if a high schooler made $15 and hour, they might not see the need to attend college. He supports incremental increases to get fast food workers up to $15 over the next four years.

Rouson, however, emphatically supports a wage increase for all workers to $15 an hour and “will continue to push for that every step along the way.”

Reed summed up her answer in three words, “Yes, yes, yes!”

Recording artist Candy Man wanted to know how would each candidate make sure that money from new economic boosts spill over to the black community, and how would they combat gentrification.

Rouson said Mayor Rick Kriseman has reported that $500 million dollars’ worth of   construction will be completed in St. Pete by the year 2018. He said he will make sure the black community gets its share of the pie.

He also told the crowd that if Tropicana Field is torn down, he will fight for affordable housing and retail space to be erected in its place, remembering when construction of the ballpark dislocated 65 percent of black-owned businesses and a housing project.

Reed said she would fight for affordable housing as a means to combat gentrification, and Narain said he would stand up to gentrification by educating homeowners on the value of what their property is worth. He warned against selling a property without knowing its market value.

When asked how they would challenge the status quo of Florida’s current education system, Narain said the “excessive testing has to stop.” He advocates for a beginning of the year test and an end of the year test. He feels that progression should not depend on an exam.

Rouson said early learning and the public school need to be overhauled. “I’m not afraid to challenge the school board,” said Rouson, who feels they are disconnected to what is going on in the black community.

Reed went back to the Fight for $15 movement saying that there is a link to parents working long hours on low-income jobs and failing schools. She feels if wages were higher, parents could spend more time parenting their children.

Corey Givens, Jr. president of Pinellas County Democratic Black Caucus, wanted to know how the candidates would support the learning needs of children ages zero to four.

“I’m not telling you what I’m going to do when elected, I’m telling you that I’m building on what I’ve already done,” said Rouson.

He sites that he brought back $400,000 from Tallahassee to the five failing schools, and was able to secure $250,000 to the Figuring It Out For the Child program at the University of South Florida, which works with the parents of children from zero to three to ensure that the father stays in the child’s life.

Narain attacked the voucher program that has “drained monies away from public schools.” “Those five failing schools of Pinellas are a direct result of a number of votes that have been taken over the years, especially the one that expanded vouchers to twice its size.”

Reed said she would work to bring programs that will offer services “to get parents back to parenting.”

Veatrice Farrell wanted to know what the candidates would do that doesn’t take a lot of money but makes a large impact.

Narain said he brought the Farm Share program to East Tampa. That program goes around the state picking up fresh fruits and vegetables and delivering to food deserts in the community. He said he would expand it to St. Pete.

Aside from the driver’s license reinstatement program that Rouson coordinated last year, which helped hundreds get back on the road legally, he said would continue to build substance abuse prevention and education programs that will arrest the problem before addiction sets in.

Reed said she would put a program together to bring resources to neighborhoods instead of needy people having to find transportation to programs that could benefit them.

Candidates also fielded questions on fracking, Medicaid expansion and the ability to work with their colleagues on the other side of the aisle.

Rouson took a jab at Narain’s inexperience, while Narain questioned Rouson’s voting record.

The primary election will take place on Aug. 30.

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