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Steve Contorno and Peter Schorsch predict 2020 election outcomes [St. Pete Catalyst]

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To listen to the full program from the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club’s November meeting, click the arrow above.

Last week, Florida Politics‘ Peter Schorsch and Tampa Bay Times‘ Steve Contorno joined the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club to talk impeachment, give their thoughts on the Democratic primary and predict outcomes of the 2020 election.

Schorsch, who started SaintPetersBlog in 2009 and moved statewide with Florida Politics in 2017, publishes one of the most-read political newsletters in the state, “Sunburn.” Contorno succeeded Adam Smith as Political Editor of the Tampa Bay Times upon Smith’s exit earlier this year. The two politicos shared their takes on what Floridians should expect over the next year.


Contorno and Schorsch began with a discussion of the impeachment inquiry, after a marathon week of testimony from fact witnesses. Contorno pointed to the dual realities portrayed in the media. “It seems that there are two realities going on,” said Contorno. “In one, we’re getting closer and closer to impeaching the president, the other, this whole thing is coming a bigger and bigger hoax by the day.”

According to a Tampa Bay Times poll of 200 Florida Insiders cited by Contorno, 90 percent said the house will move forward with impeachment, but the Senate will vote not to convict the president. Contorno agreed that would be the most likely outcome.

“I look at the impeachment stuff and it makes perfect sense to me because it’s all about the streaming wars,” said Schorsch, in reference to the new television streaming services coming online over the next few months. “You see Disney+, you see HBO Max coming and so how does MSNBC respond? With MSNBC+, so now you’ve got this impeachment stream on television all of the time.”

“It’s a fantastic television show … If you look at what Trump said to the Ukraine, what he wanted them to do, he didn’t want an investigation, he wanted the guy to go on television and say [that there would be an investigation]. And so everything is being driven by this TV coverage.”

As for the impending judgment from Congress, Schorsch explained, “We all know how it’s going to end. The possibility of Donald Trump being removed from office depends solely on the courage of Marco Rubio,” he said. “And we know how much courage Marco Rubio has.”

It’s November 2020, which Democrat is president-elect and did they win Florida?

“It seems like the smart money remains on Joe Biden, that money is becoming less and less smart every day,” Contorno explained. “I think his performance last night … showed that he has a lot of weaknesses and that’s going to be a problem. At this point looking at how the states after Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina pan out, he would have to finish very poorly in all of those in order to not come away with the nomination.”

Schorsch disagreed. “It’s President Elizabeth Warren,” he said. “Biden finishes 6th in Iowa … and I’m a guy who really likes Biden. It’s not going to be Klobuchar. To my regret it’s not going to be Kamala Harris, although Kamala, if it’s anyone but Warren, could definitely be on the ticket.”

“Elizabeth Warren is running a campaign, and we forget that,” Schorsch explained. “This is a lot of blocking and tackling. She is laying layer upon layer of campaigning and that’s how we traditionally win these things. She’ll finish strong in Iowa, probably second or third. She’ll get to New Hampshire and probably finish first there. South Carolina will be tough for her because of the demographics there. Nevada’s going to be tough, but California has moved up this year.”

It’s still November 2020, President Trump has won, why?

If given the choice today, Schorsch said he would put his money on Trump’s reelection. He argues that while Michigan and Pennsylvania will likely flip blue, Florida will stay red, as will Wisconsin. “It’ll come down to weird states,” Schorsch said, staes like Colorado and Arizona that have traditionally not functioned as swing states. “I think, as far as predictions, we’re going to see the blowing up of the Electoral College. I think we’re going to see some weird states flip that we haven’t seen flip before,” he said.

Contorno agreed that there would likely be a shakeup in the Electoral College map, but he does not expect to see major changes until later elections. “I don’t know if we’re going to see a blowing up of the map, but we’re going to certainly start to see the cracks that we’re going to have in 2024 and 2028 for sure,” said Contorno. He believes Georgia, North Carolina and Texas will start to come in play for Democrats, and that as the Baby Boomer generation retires, the north will become both more white and more red.

In Congress, who controls the House?

Both Schorsch and Contorno agreed that Democrats would keep control of the House. “I think it’s going to be similar to 2016, where Democrats will win popular vote,” said Contorno. “That’s going to push them over the top in a lot of these congressional races.” Schorsch argued that Democrats will likely pick up about 10 more seats than they currently have, thanks to retiring Republican House members in swing districts that will be particularly harmful to Republican efforts to reclaim the House.

In Congress: Who controls the Senate?

Both panelists also agreed that the Senate would likely stay in the hands of Republicans. However, Contorno pointed to a few key seats to watch, including Doug Jones’ seat in Alabama, Cory Gardner’s seat in Colorado, Joni Ernst’s seat in Iowa and Susan Collins’ seat in Maine.

What about Florida’s delegation?

According to both Schorsch and Contorno, the 15th Congressional District currently held by Hillsborough’s Ross Spano is the seat to watch, thanks to alleged campaign-finance violations.

Will Charlie Crist keep his seat? If not, who could unseat him? 

Schorsch argued that trying to unseat Crist is a “fool’s errand.” But Contorno disagreed. “Crist won with only 54 or 55 percent against a total nobody,” he explained.

To listen to Schorsch and Contorno’s full responses, as well as answers to audience questions, click the arrow above.



‘Pied Piper of City Love’ Peter Kageyama at Tiger Bay [Video] [St. Pete Catalyst]

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Click the arrow to see Peter Kageyama’s full presentation at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.

Peter Kageyama at Tiger Bay 10.23.19 from St. Pete Catalyst on Vimeo.

Peter Kageyama, renowned author, celebrated urbanist and St. Petersburg resident, joined the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club Oct. 23 to speak about his new book, The Emotional Infrastructure of Places.

Kageyama’s third book follows his critically-renowned For The Love of Cities and its sequel, Love Where You Live. The Emotional Infrastructure of Places tackles one of today’s most urgent topics – infrastructure – in a new way.

As the United States begins a massive and frantic reinvestment in its long-neglected infrastructure, Kageyama urges city leaders throughout the country to adopt a new mindset, one less grounded in simple efficiency and more in emotional intelligence. Kageyama asks leaders to think about the unintended social and emotional consequences of infrastructure and how it has shaped our cities for the last century. Citing examples like the Lake Eola Fountain, Kageyama explains how piers, fountains and dog parks can strengthen our social bonds and bring cities together in times of joy and sorrow. Kageyama cites local examples like the highly-anticipated new St. Pete Pier, thestudio@620 founder Bob Devin Jones and Presence’s Reuben Pressman.

Rosenstiel: More than election outcomes, the Electoral College has pervasive affects on American life [St. Pete Catalyst]

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The ramifications of the current state-based “winner-take-all” electoral college system go far beyond any one presidential election, according to Patrick Rosenstiel, senior consultant of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

Trade policy, political engagement, and feelings of efficacy for Americans are all affected by a system that, according to Rosenstiel, many Americans believe cannot be changed. 

“I think a lot of people believe that the current ‘winner-take-all system’ was actually in the United States Constitution or was the founder’s system,” Rosenstiel explained to the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg Thursday. “Nowhere in the constitution does it talk about the state-based winner take all system … The state based winner take all system was not adopted by a majority of the states until the 11th presidential election. It was adopted in the lead up to the Civil War.”

Rosenstiel spoke to Tiger Bay to explain his involvement in The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, a state-by-state movement that would award the electoral votes from the states participating in the compact to the winner of the popular vote across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The compact, a contract between states, would go into effect once a 270 electoral college vote threshold is reached between compacting states. 

While there are many misconceptions around the way the current electoral college system was formed, the way Electoral College votes are distributed is defined in the U.S. Constitution by just 17 words. It reads, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors.”

While 48 states and the District of Columbia allocate their votes based on a state-based “winner-take-all” system, which allocates Electoral College votes to the winner of the state’s popular vote, these systems were designed by simple state legislation. Other methods for assigning electoral college votes, like those in Nebraska and Maine, were also enacted by state law. Those two states, which do not adhere to the “winner-take-all” trend, designate their votes by congressional district. The same could be done for the National Popular Vote movement.

The Electoral College often comes to the forefront of the American consciousness following “divergent elections,” like 2000 and 2016, in which the winner of the popular vote loses the Electoral College, and therefore the presidency. But the current system has much more pervasive effects on American democracy than the outcome of presidential elections, Rosenstiel explained.

Rosenstiel, who identifies as a conservative Republican, is an unexpected voice for a movement that has largely been characterized as blue state or democratic party-driven. He believes that the current system is responsible for lower political engagement in generally uncontested or “flyover” states, especially for Republican voters living in solidly blue states, and Democratic voters living in solidly red states. 

Based in Minneapolis, Rosenstiel says his Republican presidential vote has been drowned out in the reliably blue state for the majority of his adult life, even the 1984 election, when Minnesota was the only state in the nation to go to Walter Mondale. 

If, during the 1984 Reagan-Mondale presidential election, the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact was in effect, Rosenstiel’s vote would have counted towards Reagan’s victory. 

“The primary reason that I’m an advocate for the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact and for reform is because I do not believe that the current state-based winner take all system is in the best interest of my politics,” Rosenstiel said. “I don’t believe it’s in the best interest of my state, and I don’t believe it’s in the best interest of my country.”

Rosenstiel backed his claim with statistics from the 2012 and 2016 elections. In 2016, 96 percent of general election campaign events took place in just 12 states, considered “battleground” or “contested” states. In 2012, 100 percent of those events took place in 12 states.

“That means there are 38 states that are not campaigned to, 4 out of 5 American votes in 4 out of 5 states are not campaigned for, they are unimportant in many ways to the overall result of electing an American president … this leads to a corrupt and toxic body politic.”

“It creates two kinds of Americans, those who matter and those who don’t. Those who are treated like they matter or they don’t matter. Those who believe that they matter or don’t matter.” This is exemplified, according to Rosenstiel, by voter turnout. 

“Turnout in battleground states in presidential years is 11 points higher than it is in flyover states.”

Rosenstiel also pointed to the ailing agricultural industry and companies like Harley Davidson as casualties of the “winner-take-all” system. As the result of President Trump’s trade war, targeted countries retaliate by attacking industries in key “battleground” states, like Wisconsin, Michigan, and others that they know could harm his reelection. “They retaliate on your agricultural products, where soybeans are now rotting in the thumb of Michigan because they don’t have access to markets,” Rosenstiel said. 

“The truth is the system that we have for electing the President of the United States generates policy in a way that isn’t even always good for the battleground states.”


National Popular Vote consultant to speak in St. Pete [St. Pete Catalyst]

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In the last twenty years, two U.S. presidential elections have been won by a candidate who lost the popular vote. In both 2000 and 2016, what critics say is a flawed and antiquated electoral college system, has been called into question. Now, a controversial movement has formed to fundamentally change the way the electoral college functions.

Patrick “Rosie” Rosenstiel

On Thursday, the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club will host top National Popular Vote Consultant Patrick “Rosie” Rosenstiel at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club to discuss the implications the movement could have for future presidential elections, why it matters, and the traction the movement has gotten thus far.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is a state-by-state movement that would, in essence, award the electoral votes from the states participating in the compact to the winner of the popular vote across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The compact would go into effect once the 270 electoral college vote threshold has been reached between participating states.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact bill has so far been enacted by 16 jurisdictions with 196 electoral votes, including the District of Columbia, Delaware, Rhode Island, Vermont, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, California, Illinois and New York. Just 74 more electoral college votes are needed for the Compact to take effect.

According to the official National Popular Vote website, it would ensure, “that every vote, in every state, will matter in every presidential election.”

Proponents of the National Popular Vote movement argue that the state-by-state compact is a fundamentally conservative approach to solving the discrepancy between the national popular vote and the electoral college. It would leave the Electoral College in place, operating under the notion that states already have authority, under Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution, to award their electoral college votes as they see fit. The current electoral college system is characterized by “winner-take-all” laws over 48 states, which award the state’s electoral college votes to the candidate receiving the most popular votes in that state. As a result, outsized campaign efforts focus on fewer states, most of which are key swing states, including Ohio, Florida, Michigan and Iowa. In 2012, two-thirds of all general-election campaign events were held in just four states. No events were held in thirty-eight states.

While critics of the movement argue that it would disadvantage rural areas and make the oft-red leaning swing states like Florida and Texas (which is now in play for 2020) less powerful. However, Making Every Vote Count recently announced a new poll that found 62 percent of likely voters support their state joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.

Tickets are still available for Thursday’s Tiger Bay luncheon with Consultant Patrick “Rosie” Rosenstiel. Find more details here

Blackmon, Hornbeck seek to differentiate themselves in District 1 race [St. Pete Catalyst]

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The candidates for St. Petersburg City Council’s District 1 race squared off in their first debate Wednesday, hosted by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club. The candidates, local real estate investor Robert Blackmon, 30, and local attorney John Hornbeck, 34, are seeking to replace outgoing St. Petersburg City Council Chair Charlie Gerdes.

Wednesday’s debate was the candidates’ first opportunity to differentiate themselves in the nonpartisan race, and comes nearly one month after the race’s third candidate (and initial frontrunner) Scott Orsini dropped out of the race following the release of controversial tweets.

The debate, which was moderated by Janelle Irwin of Florida Politics, covered topics ranging from negotiations with Tampa Bay Rays to Tropicana Field site redevelopment, affordable housing, sustainability and transportation.

Here’s how the candidates squared up:

On the Tampa Bay Rays:

Hornbeck has made keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg one of his top priorities. He proposed that the City of St. Petersburg split the cost of a “boutique” 20,000-seat stadium with the Tampa Bay Rays. Hornbeck also proposed that the stadium be built at the Al Lang field site, with a retractable roof.

Blackmon has not come out with any plans for the Rays stadium, but said he supports the City of St. Pete’s Tropicana site development plan with the Rays stadium. Blackmon said he wants to see the Rays stay in St. Petersburg, but that Hornbeck’s plan is “not viable,” taking issue with the size of the stadium and the expense of a retractable roof.

On the Tropicana Field site:

Hornbeck believes that moving the Rays to Al Lang would open up the Tropicana Field site for the development of a world-class convention center. He believes the convention center would attract more tourists and bring more visitors to area restaurants, bars and breweries.

Blackmon called the Tropicana Field site a blessing, but was quick to acknowledge the controversial history of the site’s acquisition and the bulldozing of the Gas Plant neighborhood that was once there. Blackmon called for a memorial and an African American Museum to be included in the site alongside office space, hotels and a conference center.

“We keep putting in housing but we need to get corporate relocations,” said Blackmon. “We need to get more jobs here so I think office space is certainly wonderful.”

Blackmon was also clear about his stance on the more than a dozen parking lots surrounding the Tropicana site, arguing that the lots built in the ’90s no longer make sense for a city with a thriving downtown.

On Housing: 

Hornbeck cited Mayor Kriseman’s “For All, From All” affordable housing plan announced last week, and pointed specifically to issues like changing zoning codes to allow for quadplexes and carriage houses as areas that could easily allow for more development. He also called for better educating the community about what affordable housing is and who it serves, including the elderly and veterans.

Blackmon came at housing from a business perspective. “My career has been providing affordable housing,” Blackmon said. “I’ve done it from a free market perspective. I’ve bought apartment complexes, condos, I’ve renovated them and I’ve rented them out. I’ve always been able to do that affordably and I’ve been able to undercut the competition based on knowledge and common sense. So I do have experience running a budget and running a business. I’m excited to bring a small business owner perspective to city council.”

Blackmon called for similar zoning changes, relaxing regulations on people “trying to do the right thing,” and allowing duplexes, carriage houses, mother in law suites, and more projects with community partners such as Habitat for Humanity. Blackmon also pointed to the city’s lot disbursement program as something to be revamped.

On Poverty in the CRA:

Blackmon said that moving people out of poverty came down to three main things: housing, jobs and education, and that addressing those main concerns would create change.

Hornbeck focused instead on another of his top initiatives, affordable young development, intervention and mentorship programs.

The slippery questions: Bus Rapid Transit, Complete Streets, Linkage Fees. 

Neither Hornbeck nor Blackmon gave definitive yes or no answers regarding their support of the Central Avenue BRT project, the City’s Complete Streets initiative or the linkage fees proposed in Mayor Kriseman’s “For All, From All” housing plan.

“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what I support, because it has unanimously passed Council,” said Blackmon of the Central Avenue BRT project.

“This is one where I need to listen because I’ll be honest with you: I drive a car, I don’t walk as much as I should and I don’t cycle,” said Hornbeck on Complete Streets.

On Endorsements:

Blackmon leaned hard on heavy-hitting endorsements he’s gained from political players throughout Tampa Bay. “Every endorsement that’s gone out in this campaign so far has been for me,” he said. Among Blackmon’s supporters are State Senator Darryl Rouson, State Rep. Wengay Newton and former Mayors Bob Ulrich and Rick Baker. He has also won endorsements from four current City Council members, including Darden Rice, Brandi Gabbard, Gina Driscoll and Ed Montanari.

Hornbeck took issue with Blackmon’s lean on endorsements. “Before I started raising money and getting my endorsements, I wanted to make sure my policy was correct,” Hornbeck explained. “If you start raising money and getting endorsements and then shape your policy, guess what, your policy is going to be affected by the people who endorse you, by the people that give you money … I haven’t asked anyone yet to endorse me.”

Suncoast Tiger Bay: Righting wrongs means shining a light [Video] [St. Pete Catalyst]

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Welcome Catalyst’s Community Voices. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details. Click play on the video below to see the full conversation at the June 27th Suncoast Tiger Bay luncheon featuring Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil, Gwendolyn Reese, Tim Dutton and Winnie Foster.

The late 19th and early 20th Century African-American investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, an early leader in the civil rights movement once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Over Tiger Bay’s 40 years of existence, our organization has attempted to host open-tent civic and political conversations of every stripe. We have done this with success at times, and at others, not so successfully. But Tiger Bay has never done a good job of critically analyzing our own community’s history – particularly when it comes to race.

A few months ago during a Tiger Bay luncheon, a question was asked about Green Benches that used to line Central Avenue. To a significant segment of our community’s population, those benches are at best benign artifacts of the past, and at worst, a symbol of an ugly segregationist era in our history and in our city.

The question triggered a conversation among Tiger Bay’s board that identified a larger, long-overdue conversation, that needed to happen at Tiger Bay. We scheduled this conversation to begin shining a light.

Our invitation to our June 27 event advertised a “bold” conversation on race and the legacy of racism in the ‘Burg. That is what we set out to do.

We made a commitment that this will not be a single conversation, but rather that we model what we hope will take
place throughout the rest of our city, state, and country – that courageous conversations can happen and will happen with frequency, reflecting the voices and experiences of all members of our community.

It was inspiring then that this luncheon was our largest luncheon crowd in 2019. It was clear that our community is hungry for conversation, for understanding. This serves to reaffirm the importance of this conversation and ensures it will not be the last.

On June 27 we welcomed a carefully selected panel of community members and experts. The panel included Gwendolyn
Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association; Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil, community activist and faith leader; Winnie Foster, grassroots activist; and Tim Dutton, executive director of UNITE Pinellas. It was moderated by Pinellas County Commissioner and Tiger Bay member Ken Welch. If you missed the conversation, please enjoy the recap below. If you’d like to become a member of Tiger Bay, please visit our website here.

After 41 years, Tiger Bay political club discusses racism in St. Pete [The Weekly Challenger]

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ST. PETERSBURG — Some of the realities of blacks and whites living side by side in St. Pete were discussed at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club during their lunch meeting entitled “Race & The Legacy of Racism in the ‘Burg” held Thursday, June 27 at the St. Pete Yacht Club.

Tiger Bay is a non-partisan political club that was created in 1978 to foster a better understanding of public issues.

But while the June lunch discussion was the first time in the group’s 41-year history that it focused solely on race in the city, club president Elise Minkoff promised it would not be the last, noting that the lunch crowd’s attendance for that event was the largest so far in 2019.

Panel members included community activist and president of the African American Heritage Association Gwendolyn Reese, faith and community leader Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil, grassroots activist Winnie Foster and Tim Dutton, executive director of UNITE Pinellas, which has a mission to increase equity in all areas in the county.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch introduced and moderated the event, referring to the enduring impacts of racism that haunt Pinellas.

“Racism is one of defining issues of our nation,” he remarked, noting that it permeates every area of American life.

Imam Aquil began the discussion recalling coming of age in a segregated St. Pete where he interned at St. Petersburg Times when it still had a “news for negroes” section. He spoke of being a student at the University of South Florida where he and other students responded to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by leading the movement that resulted in the university’s first black studies program (today’s Africana Studies program).

Reese noted her reason for taking part in the discussion at Tiger Bay, in a location where blacks weren’t allowed until well after desegregation (according to its own history, the St. Petersburg Yacht Club did not admit its first black member until 1985).

“I’m doing it because it’s an opportunity to have a conversation with a group of people who normally don’t have these kinds of conversations,” she asserted.

She also clarified that while she could enrich the conversation as a person of African descent, she was not speaking for St. Pete’s black population.

“I do not speak for my people. We are not monolithic. If you spoke to 100 of us, we would have differing perspectives and opinions,” stated Reese, requesting that listeners not walk away assuming she was speaking for the entire black community.

Dutton’s organization UNITE Pinellas recently released a 2019 Equity profile pointing to serious gaps in everything from black versus white homeownership, education and employment numbers and treatment by both law enforcement and the justice system in the county.

His remarks began with acknowledging that his father’s return from WWII significantly differed from the return of many black vets.

“The G.I. Bill was waiting for him – with opportunity for home ownership, to go to college,” he explained. “My mom and dad bought a house; they started building wealth. That was not made available to the 1.2 million black veterans that came home.”

Foster said that she doesn’t see much change toward “real justice in this country and in our community,” and shared that to get justice, “people have to march.”

She was, however, hopeful that young people especially would be able to move the needle of justice further along by addressing issues of racism with “noisy” action and on-going activism.

While the one-hour discussion could only touch briefly on the myriad of issues involved in on-going racism in the county, it was a particularly St. Pete-ish conundrum that actually inspired Tiger Bay’s decision to hold the discussion in the first place: the green benches.

A symbol of the “whites-only” mentality of St. Pete’s earlier days, the green benches have become a favorite bit of nostalgia for businesses such as Green Bench Brewing Company, the Green Bench Monthly and the bench-making Clearwater business Green Benches & More.

The divide between how blacks and whites regard the ongoing use of “the green bench” as a symbol of St. Pete seems to indicate just how far the community still has to go on issues of race and racism.

And in fact, it was Rev. JC Pritchett’s challenge that won the day’s “Fang & Claw” award for best question — and focused on the troublesome benches.

“Ollie’s Outlet on Ninth Avenue North, Chik-Fil-A on Fourth Street North, the Green Bench magazine  and the ever-expanding Green Bench Brewery are a few of the businesses in this community that continue to use the green bench symbol,” Pritchett noted. “Should we be sympathetic to people who continue to use this symbol that has been hurtful to many of our families,” the pastor questioned.

Reese did speak what was on the minds of many in the room when she answered Pritchett’s questions.

“Sympathetic, no; understanding, no; accepting, no,” said Reese.

“It is very important for us if we are going to be respectful and live in a community that honors and values everyone and all history that we understand the history of the green benches,” stated Reese.

She reminded listeners that the benches were not “romantic” for many, but “humiliating,” while Dutton recommended using the economic approach of holding back dollars from outlets that continued to promote brewery products labeled with “Green Bench” to send a message of protest in solidarity.

To reach J.A. Jones, email

Tiger Bay talks race, green benches, gentrification in ‘long overdue’ conversation [St. Pete Catalyst]

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A simple question about the legacy of St. Petersburg’s infamous green benches triggered a conversation that brought more than 160 people together Thursday at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club’s discussion on Race and the Legacy of Racism in the ‘Burg.

Those green benches, which once lined Central Avenue, were depicted on postcards and tourism brochures. It is estimated that at one time, nearly 7,000 benches lined the streets of St. Petersburg. For some, they represent a romanticized image of St. Petersburg’s history.

For many, the green bench’s legacy means something altogether different. As a practice, black residents were not allowed on St. Petersburg’s green benches. They were, by all practical measures, white-only, throughout the 1950s, though the practice was never enshrined in ordinance.

“A few months ago during a Tiger Bay luncheon, a question was asked during our panel discussion on historic preservation about the green benches that used to line Central Avenue,” explained Suncoast Tiger Bay Club President Elise Minkoff.

“To a significant segment of our community’s population, those benches are at best an artifact of the past and at their worst, a symbol – an ugly symbol – of a segregationist era in our history and in our city.

“The question triggered a discussion among Tiger Bay’s board where we identified that a larger, long overdue conversation needs to happen here at Tiger Bay,” Minkoff continued.

Ironically, the conversation came together Thursday at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, which for much of its history did not allow black members. According to its Centennial Book, the St. Petersburg Yacht Club did not admit its first black member until 1985.

In a sort of public reckoning, Minkoff acknowledged that in Tiger Bay’s more than 40 year history of community conversations and dialogue, Thursday’s meeting was the first to be entirely dedicated to a conversation on race.

“We want to make a commitment that this will not be a single conversation,” she said, to audience applause, “but rather that we model what we hope will take place throughout the rest of our city, our state, and our country. That courageous conversations can happen and will happen.”

The event’s panel was moderated by Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, and featured Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil, longtime community activist Winnie Foster, and Tim Dutton, executive director of Unite Pinellas.

Welch framed the conversation in the context of St. Petersburg’s checkered racial history, recalling heated issues like gentrification, specifically related to certain areas of South St. Petersburg, like the Gas Plant District, which was razed to build what is now Tropicana Field and its many parking lots; as well as the Deuces Live, the historic black business district, bifurcated by I-275, and now segmented by the Warehouse Arts District.

Welch recalled the “Courageous 12,” a group of black police officers who successfully sued the city for the right to patrol white neighborhoods and use the same locker rooms, water fountains and cars as white officers. He also mentioned the 1996 killing of Tyron Lewis, an unarmed black teenager shot by a white St. Petersburg police officer, and the riots that ensued.

“Even here in beautiful and progressive Pinellas, like most communities in our nation and particularly in the South, we are not immune from the legacy and enduring impacts of discrimination and racism,” said Welch.

“And so an honest discussion on race is really the only path to a mutual understanding of our past and that in turn will empower us to successfully lay the foundation for equity, shared progress and prosperity for our future.”

The panel tackled issues from gentrification, to deep-seated structural inequality, to the need for historical awareness and education.

One theme that continued to resonate? Green benches.

“Ollie’s Outlet on 9th Avenue North, Chik-Fil-A on 4th Street, Green Bench Magazine and the ever-expanding Green Bench Brewery are a few of the businesses in this community that continue to use the green bench symbol,” said Reverend JC Pritchett.

“My question to you is, is this a dog-whistle in your opinion? Is this subtle? Is this a misunderstanding? Should we be sympathetic to people who continue to use this symbol that has been hurtful to many in our family?” Pritchett asked.

“Sympathetic, no. Understanding, no. Accepting, no,” said Reese.

“Many efforts are being made to romanticize the green benches, and it’s very romantic for some people. But I was born and raised here. I walked down Central Avenue and could not sit on those green benches,” she explained.

“To romanticize it and lift it up in one way without understanding or even voicing the history and the perspective of other people who were adversely affected, it’s not romantic to us, it’s humiliating to us. It reminds us of a period, an era, Jim Crow and segregation, that is a part of our history. But why do you lift it up and romanticize it?

“I think the green benches are very much like – you may not like this – but they’re like the Confederate statues that are all across this country, romanticizing a period in our history that was not romantic for many Americans.”

Dutton encouraged audience members to engage in economic activism. “I do think this is an opportunity – an economic opportunity – for us to use our wallets to influence change,” he explained. “And do it vocally, do it with a noisy approach. Don’t buy those products and tell people about it. Don’t buy those products and make sure everybody knows why.”

“Race and the legacy of racism” in St. Petersburg [WMNF]

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On Thursday afternoon in St. Petersburg the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club hosted a discussion about race and the legacy of racism in the city. Topics like reparations, gentrification and the racist symbolism of St. Petersburg’s segregated green benches came up. It was held at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, which used to exclude African-Americans.

WMNF News interviewed Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch about race in the history of St. Pete.

“It’s complex. And we’re not immune from the legacy of racism and discrimination. Just like every other city in the country, and especially cities in the south.  So this conversation today is vitally important. You can see it’s a sold out room. That’s encouraging to see. But I think in this community we are ready to embrace that discussion more fully.

“Especially as we move into redevelopment of historically African-American areas, as we talk about making sure we’re a prosperous county. An understanding of where we come from and having that racial awareness across the board is going to be vital to that.”

SK: Do students of color get the same education in Pinellas County as white students?

“How much time do you have? Because in my first year I was at all-black Melrose in 1970-1971. The next year we became integrated so I was bused to Bay Point. The quality of education at Melrose was great. It was a small classroom environment. It was also great at Bay Point. So I think there are a lot of factors. But the issue of poverty I think really impacts our schools.”

Welch moderated the discussion on race with panelists Gwen Reese, Imam Askia Muhammed Aquil, Winnie Foster and Tim Dutton.

WMNF also spoke with Pinellas County School Board member Joanne Lentino about race and public education.