BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – The St. Petersburg Branch of the NAACP hosted a candidate forum for the four Democrats running for Florida State Senate District 19 Tues., July 12 at the Enoch Davis Center.
Candidates included Betty Reed, Rep. Darryl Rouson, Rep. Ed Narain and St. Pete trial attorney Augie Ribeiro.
Patrick Manteiga, editor/publisher of La Gaceta newspaper moderated the forum, in which the candidates fielded questions concerning charter schools, the privatization of prisons and police shootings of African-American men.
Concerning charter schools and vouchers for students to attend private schools and transportation options for students to attend schools outside of their neighborhoods, Reed believes it’s a mistake to build schools just for charter and pour a lot of money in the them if they’re not up to standards, but maintains that the children’s education is the most important thing and parents should have options on where they go to school.
Though Ribeiro understands that it’s hard for a mother to send her child to a failing school, he lamented the over $70 million construction costs of building charter schools in recent years.
“It’s unacceptable,” he said. “That money should go into the public system.”
Bringing in quality teachers to the inner city schools can cut down on the achievement gap, he said.
Rouson believes that parents deserve a choice, but he is “invested” in public schools and high quality, free education for those in the system.
“Why should a child’s education be tied to the parents’ purse or wallet?” he said. “Every child deserves to learn and learn in an environment that will make that child successful.”
Narain is convinced that public education is still the key to getting people out of poverty and into the middle class.
“The reality of it is,” he said, “vouchers are not going to save all of our kids. It’s the equivalent of having a building that’s on fire and you’ve got 100 kids in there and we choose 10 of those kids and we say, ‘Come, you guys can be safe.’ What happens to the 90 kids that are left behind?”
Concerning the low pay of early childhood educators and the nationwide medium hourly wage of $9.77, all four candidates said they would aggressively support an increase of the hourly wage to $15 supplemented via state funds.
Rouson and Narain actually have some firsthand experience as they both took part in the Minimum Wage Challenge, a campaign to get elected officials and community leaders to live on Florida’s minimum hourly wage of $8.05 for five days.
They also agreed across the board for restoring voting rights to former felons in the state, with Rouson noting that he has worked hard on reentry programs to help people get their rights restored.
“People deserve another chance,” he said. “A second chance at life and they need to have the opportunity to participate in government through the voting process.”
The candidates also spoke about the various socio-economic issues they have been directly involved in to effect changes within their communities.
Among other achievements, Narain, a life member of the NAACP, said he sat on a community action board that focused solely on eradicating poverty in Hillsborough County and is a member of the Children’s Board, the largest social services provider in Hillsborough.
Reed recounted her many years serving as a PTA mom and her volunteer work with a substance abuse council, while Ribeiro has donated land in Tampa for Habitat for Humanity and supports the Police Athletic League in Midtown and the St. Pete Free Clinic, where his wife serves on the board.
Rouson pointed out his volunteer work at substance abuse treatment centers, membership of Key Club and Kiwanis Club, his mentoring of young people and his service as the president of the NAACP in St. Pete for five years.
On this issue of prison privatization, Reed said she agrees with the notion that the privatization of prisons had an effect on the incarceration rate in Florida. Rouson agreed, saying the “prison industrial complex” is alive and well and even added that such privatization has had an impact on the quality of healthcare for the inmates.
“While we have them,” he asserted, “we need to care for them with quality healthcare, so that when they reenter, they reenter ready to go to work and be accountable and productive citizens once again.”
In noting that private prisons can exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline problem, Narain said they create a “perverse incentive” for the public school system to fail.
“There should be no such thing as a private prison,” he asserted. “There are functions that should be outsourced but I can tell you, taking care of human life is not one of them.”
Concerning the recent shootings of African-American men, Ribeiro said it starts with an understanding of the racial and social injustice that has got us to this point.
“There’s a misperception among police officers, white communities, legislators that somehow because there was a Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, or we elected a black president that things are better.”
Speaking out against shootings by civilians carrying military style weapons, Rouson was adamant that assault weapons should be banned, noting that he would work hard for an overdue gun legislation bill to pass.
Referencing the shooting and killing of church musician Corey Jones in West Palm Beach by a police officer in civilian clothes, Narain would like to introduce a bill that would prevent unmarked police cars from doing traffic stops.
“How many of us want to be in that situation where some car just pulls up and someone who’s not in uniform stops you?”
When the question of transportation arose, Rouson said the process in which the state suspends drivers licenses need to be overhauled.
“There are four offenses: truancy, graffiti, worthless check, and minor possession of marijuana, and we need to change that. It should only be suspended for driving-related offenses,” Rouson said, revealing that 102,000 people in Pinellas County alone had their licenses suspended in the past year.
Narain agreed, and added that larger municipalities should have the ability to offer their own referendums for transportation.
“The reality of it is, people in the outskirts of our counties don’t feel the need to expand mass transit. They’re not dealing with the issues that the people we represent up here deal with.”
State District 19 encompasses West Tampa, all of East Tampa, Riverview, Gibsonton, Apollo Beach downtown and south St. Petersburg.
NAACP candidate report card for candidates for State Senate Seat No. 19:
• Edwin Narain’s grade is A (3.9 out of 4)
• Betty Reed’s grade is C (2.1 out of 4)
• Augie Ribeiro’s grade is C (2.3 out of 4)
• Darryl Rouson’s grade is A (3.7 out of 4)