Video: St. Pete mayoral debate marred by Uhuru protest, ended in shoving match
What started with a standing-room crowd in a large packed ballroom at the Hilton St. Petersburg Bayfront eager to see a mayoral debate Monday evening ended two hours later with fisticuffs and a stream of police officers arriving at the hotel.
A candidate forum for six mayoral candidates and eight hopefuls for City Council quickly degenerated into a cacophony of jeers, chants and disruption orchestrated largely by the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement.
The group’s chairman, Omali Yeshitela, smiled and clapped, as his supporters shouted down the seven other candidates for District 6 who weren’t named Eritha “Akile” Cainion, who shouted her answers to questions so loudly that some audience members jumped.
“We’re at war. And we’re talking about noise? I can’t,” Cainion said when asked about the city’s noise ordinance in a moment of apparent unintentional irony.
The Uhuru-affiliated mayoral candidate Jesse Nevel called for Mayor Rick Kriseman to be criminally investigated for the city’s sewage mess.
When former Mayor Rick Baker asked that the Uhurus allow other candidates to speak, Nevel interjected: “People hate you.”
Moderated by the St. Petersburg Area chapter of the League of Women Voters and hosted by the Downtown Neighborhood Assocation, both the city council forum and mayoral gathering were largely a stage for the political theater of the Uhurus Monday just as a similar forum hosted by the Mt. Zion AME church was last week.
League of Women Voters officials threatened to end the forum if the mayhem continued, to little avail. Eventually, supporters of other minor candidates like Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter and Anthony Cates III entered the fray.
“No debate, Vote Cates!” shouted one woman over and over.
“That’s my sister,” beamed Cates.
After 37 minutes of the mayoral forum -- attended by Ernisa Barnwell, who had been disqualified Friday by City Clerk Chan Srinivasa because her check bounced -- organizers called a halt to the proceedings. That came after Lassiter engaged in a heated shouting match with Kunde Mwamvita, the mother of Dominqiue Battle, a 16-year-old girl who died in a stolen car that plunged into a retention pond at the Royal Palm Cemetery in St. Petersburg while being pursued by Pinellas County sheriff's deputies.
A shoving match then broke out as organizers ordered the crowd to leave the ballroom. Police officers soon arrived. The Uhurus left, in full chant. There didn’t appear to be any arrests made.
In the midst of the chaos, frontrunners Kriseman and Baker barely got to answer questions. Asked to name his five largest campaign contributors, Kriseman said it was a “really good question,” but struggled to name anyone before being shouted down. He mentioned that many people had given the maximum $1,000 amount, but didn’t mention Frank Brunckhorst, of the Boar’s Head deli fortune, who gave $25,000 to the mayor’s Sunrise PAC in April.
Baker wasn’t among the candidates asked to answer. Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards has given $50,000 to his campaign.
Kriseman collected another $48,500 in donations during June, bringing his total to $305,950. Baker collected more than triple that amount for his Seamless Florida PAC in June, bringing his total to $539,553. Combined with individual contributions, the two candidates have collected about $1.5 million so far. Kriseman leads “hard money” donations: $312,498 to $226,471.
The candidates attempted to address homelessness, economic development in Midtown, police abuse and whether or not to keep Police Chief Anthony Holloway (Kriseman, yes; Baker, non-commital), but the story of the night was the utter inability of the candidates to engage in any sustained debate.
One mayoral candidate, Paul Congemi, was invited, but didn't attend.
At one point, a frustrated man yelled from the audience: “Let him speak, Jesus!” as Uhuru supporters drowned out Kriseman.
Even Lassiter, who has disrupted plenty of City Council meetings over the years, had reached her limit.
“I’m so over them,” she said after being shouted down.
As the forum degenerated into a pushing, screaming scrum, Nevel paused by the doorway, briefly surveyed the scene, then quickly left as police officers entered.