The St. Petersburg Branch of the NAACP held a candidate forum last Saturday, Oct. 10. Candidates were L-R (top row) Caprice Edmond, Karl Nurse, Laura Hine, Maria L. Scruggs; bottom row candidates (L-R) Rene Flowers, Eliseo Santana and Trevor Mallory
BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
PINELLAS COUNTY — As the election races heat up, several candidates faced off in the NAACP St. Pete Branch’s virtual town hall moderated by Dr. Devon Pierre.
Running for Pinellas County Commission, District 7, Rene Flowers squared off against Maria L. Scruggs.
Flowers, who grew up in Jordan Park, said one reason she is running is that she knows what it’s like to live in an affordable housing community, “where you are loved by that community, and where everyone lets you know that you can be and do whatever it is that you want.”
In her years of service as an elected official, she has assisted in providing funding for affordable housing and worked on small business development.
Scruggs explained that she is running for one reason: “The people need representation,” she said, adding that people these days are over partisan politics, and for the first time in her life, she is running as a non-party affiliate.
“I’m running simply to continue a legacy of service,” Scruggs said, noting that while she has not been an elected official, she has been a public servant for more than 40 years.
Flowers said that the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) would be one part of the county government that would receive particular attention from her.
“When corporate America falters,” she said, “it is the small business entities that keep our communities going. And we’ve seen that, even recently, as it relates to COVID-19.”
Minority-owned and women-owned small businesses have proven that they can keep going even in the face of a pandemic, a recession, and a sinking stock market, Flowers maintained. She would seek to expand the SBDC so it can garner even more resources and financial capital to aid community businesses.
Scruggs said that if elected, she would focus on a “listening tour” throughout the county once we are past the pandemic to determine the impact on small businesses, families and students.
She said we must “assess the magnitude of an issue before we begin prioritizing resources.”
Concerning challenges for the county’s infrastructure and economic development, Scruggs pointed out that three of the five most challenged zip codes are in District 7. She also referred to the grounds of Tropicana Field as a “big, white elephant” in the heart of Midtown.
Flowers said infrastructure projects for her would involve transportation, stormwater sewer services, roads and sidewalks.
Regarding private providers, Flowers said citizens would not get a better service when it comes to contracting services with private developers.
“When you are working, either with the internal structure of the county or when you are working within the parameters where there is union representation,” she said, “you know that those members are going to be paid fair wages; you know that there’s going to be equity and contract service delivery, you know that the services will be delivered and delivered timely.”
Scruggs said that privatization for the sake of privatization is a failure and does not benefit the citizens.
Among her community service accomplishments, Flowers said she helped raise funds for the Midtown Academy music program, provided school uniforms and supplies for several elementary schools and personally purchased washers and dryers for elementary schools.
Scruggs pointed to her recent service as the NAACP St. Pete Branch president, as she and the branch’s committee delivered more than $100,000 to Black-owned and small businesses in the county. She also served over five years as the president of Happy Workers Learning Center’s board.
Eliseo Santana is running for Pinellas County Sheriff against the incumbent Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who declined the invitation to appear.
In deciding to run for sheriff, Santana pointed to the deaths of the three teenage girls who drowned when the car they were driving careened into a pond in St. Pete. Some believe that the deputies on the scene could’ve done something to save them. Santana said their immediate response in the face of that tragedy was “unacceptable.” He also noted the murder of George Floyd earlier this year, who was killed when a white officer kept his knee of Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes.
“I think we all witnessed that and stood up and said, ‘Enough is enough!'” he said. “When we have the ability to take action for something wrong, we need to act.”
Santana said that officers need to be aware of the cultural bias they carry.
“We need to educate them so that when they are making a decision, they understand where it’s coming from. I will provide that training,” Santana said, stressing that de-escalation tactics are crucial.
Community policing is what’s needed, not the “imposing of the will” on the people, he said. Santana is not only in favor of body cameras for officers, he calls them essential. Working as a technologist for the sheriff’s department for 31 years, he saw the value of body cams from day one.
“When you put a camera on the shoulder of an individual, they start acting professional, and with courtesy across the board,” Santana attested, underscoring the importance of information that can be garnered by such cameras.
Among his accomplishments and community service, Santana served as a member and past vice president of the League of Women Voters North Pinellas, is the president and founder of Puerto Rico Connect, the president and founder of the League of United Latin American Citizens Pinellas and is a member of the UUC Social Justice Council.
“It is essential that each and every one of us that is able to do something, acts in a capacity to make our community better,” he said.
Trevor Mallory is running for Pinellas County Property Appraiser against Mike Twitty, who was unable to take part in the town hall due to a family emergency.
Mallory is a real estate and maintenance manager of more than 100 properties in several low-income communities throughout the county. He pointed to unfair inequities in the assessment process that drove him to run in this election.
“I felt like it was my civic duty to put my hat in the ring to advocate for change when it comes to fair assessments across the board for all communities,” he said.
Mallory noted that according to a study, in 118 million properties across the country, African Americans paid 13-15 percent more in property taxes than any other race.
“You can’t say that this study was done on 118 million properties, and it does not happen in our own backyard,” he said. “My opponent doesn’t think that’s a problem, and I’m sorry, but I do.”
Mallory said there is no open-door policy in the current property appraiser’s office, adding that out of 130 employees in that office, there are about six African Americans — this could be the reason why some of the low-income, Black communities are not getting fair assessments across the board.
“That’s just a fact,” he said. “That’s something that can’t be hidden.”
Running for Pinellas School Board, District 7 are Caprice Edmond and Karl Nurse, while Laura Hine is running for Pinellas School Board, District 1.
Nurse said if we are going to make a real difference in poverty in this country, we must radically improve schools and close the achievement gap. He said social media is a great way to get information out to keep families informed of meetings and school board agendas. He’d also attend neighborhood meetings, school-related meetings and public interest meetings as a way to reach out.
“There’s an opportunity to meet with people almost every night,” said the former city councilman, “and that was my experience on city council.”
To close the achievement gap, Nurse said we should engage children in the preschools much more than we are now. Particularly when it comes to K-2 kids, if they are not reading on their grade level, they should not be promoted, he said.
“If you don’t do a good job on reading and math in the first few years, the children will never catch up,” Nurse averred.
He said more one-on-one work with young kids would help get them caught up or even a mandatory summer bridge.
Edmond said she has worked with children in various capacities her entire life, and she has seen firsthand the inequities in our educational system. She aims to advocate for affordable funding of resources for all schools. She said she would keep families informed by having conversations with the community and added that she is a call or an email away.
She underscored that it is crucial to focus on “the whole child” when it comes to closing the achievement gap by addressing the child’s physical, social and emotional needs. Honing in on early education and connecting families to available resources are also essential.
“I think that it’s important that we are transparent in letting the community know what challenges we’re having, as well as allowing people and organizations to partner with us,” Edmond said, adding she’d like to see additional programs outside of school addressing reading and math proficiency.
Hine said she is running because when her children came of school age, she noticed “gross inequities” in education across the county. She plans to keep families informed of the school board meetings, as she noted too many families are unaware of these meetings, much less aware of what’s on the agenda. Hine would like to have quarterly “listening sessions” across the county to “both share what is on our agenda, what’s in our workshops, and listen and hear what people’s priorities are.”
“I want to be out there, available, listening, sharing, dialoguing with our community and our families,” she said.
Concerning the closing of the achievement gap, Hine said that “we must cultivate and unleash the capabilities of our Black and Brown children the way we have our white children for years now.”
Some good work has been done with the Bridging the Gap program, she noted, but we can do more, adding that she is committed to early childhood education, reading and early cultural curriculums.
The General Election is Nov. 3, and the deadline to request a mail-in ballot is Oct. 24 at 5 p.m. Ballots may be returned now to any Supervisors of Elections office. Starting Oct. 19, mail-in ballots can be dropped off at 25 designated boxes until Nov. 2. Visit votepinellas.com for the locations.
Early voting starts Oct. 19 and ends Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. Visit votepinellas.com to learn the five early voting locations. Voters can go to any early voting site. In order to vote a regular ballot, voters are required to present both picture and signature identification. Voters who do not bring both types of ID will be required to vote a provisional ballot.
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