Above, Mhariel Summers (the challenger, left) and Gina Driscoll (the incumbent, right) will face off in the general election that ends November 2nd
– By Gypsy C. Gallardo for TheBurgVotes
For a minute there it looked as though St. Pete’s District 6 City Council race would go without an African American in the running for the first time in half a century.
That changed when 30-year old Mhariel Summers entered the fray this May, touting equity as a building block of her campaign, and becoming the lone challenger to incumbent Gina Driscoll.
For some, Summers’ entry also re-kindled the long simmering debate about whether to continue to fight (against the tide) for Black representation in a district that’s become much less Black than it once was, and whose Black voters have become less active.
Though African Americans are still roughly 40% of the population there, they turned in only 24% of District 6 votes in the last city election (2017) when Driscoll first won the seat.
Even if we concede that District 6 may never be majority-Black again, there is still every reason to hold its representative accountable to the needs of Black people, and to redouble efforts to engage Black voters there. Of the eight Council districts, D6 had the largest White-Black voter turnout gap in the 2020 Presidential.
4 Reasons to Elevate the Needs & Voices of African Americans in this Race
1. Legacy. District 6 is the birthplace of Black representation in Pinellas County.
District 6 is where C. Bette Wimbish became the first African American elected to the St. Pete City Council in 1969, and in so doing, became the first African American elected to any office in Pinellas County (suffering KKK threats and a cross burning in her yard in the process).
It surprises many to learn that District 6 was not a comfortable “Black seat” when Wimbish won it. She ran against white male incumbent Martin Murray, Jr. and won the seat at a time when the district was only about 13% Black.
The district later gained a majority-Black population during redistricting (which Wimbish helped spearhead). In 1980, District 6 was drawn to be about 72% Black, electing David Welch in 1981. It retained that Black share when redrawn in 1982.
The boundaries were re-shaped at least twice after that, in 2003 and 2013. District 6 reached a racial inflection point during that last round. Today, its population is only 40% Black.
From its origins on the western edge of the city’s former segregated Black neighborhoods, District 6 has shifted as far east as it can, to the waters of Tampa Bay and northward through downtown.
Nevertheless, if there is anything Mrs. Wimbish taught us, it’s that one’s district need not be majority-Black in order to champion Black progress. One of the first issues she took on once elected by her majority-white base was to battle discrimination against Black employees of the City Parks Department.
2. District 6 has the largest concentration of African Americans in poverty, and with other major challenges.
It’s a false perception that the two Black Councilmembers in Districts 5 and 7 represent the city’s highest poverty areas. District 6, currently represented by Driscoll (who is white), has the largest concentration of Black poverty.
On the one hand, District 6 encompasses several waterfront neighborhoods, and as a result, many of the city’s middle and upper income households (Black and white).
The district has over one-quarter (27%) of Black households in St. Pete with income of $100,000 or more. But it also houses the three highest poverty census tracts in the city and has 4,700 African Americans living below the poverty line.
It’s often assumed that Lisa Wheeler-Bowman’s district (7) is poorer than the area Driscoll represents. But not so.
Check the graph below, District 6 claims a larger share of a host of major challenges. The area is home to 45% of all households in St. Pete with incomes less than $10,000.
More families in District 6 live without computers and internet access, while 30% of households are without a vehicle and nearly one in four vacant housing units in St. Pete is in District 6.
These are a few examples of the dozens of quality-of-life measures that show up as most urgent in District 6.
The District 6 Councilmember should be just as urgent in their intent to rally solutions.
3. District 6 is one of only three districts where African Americans can exert unambiguously decisive influence during elections.
Though District 6 is no longer as Black as it once was, African Americans are still 40% of the district and 30% of registered voters there.
Only three City Council districts in the city have voting bases that are 30% or more African American. District 6 is one of them.
If African Americans chose to vote in a bloc (as they often do), they could be as decisive in District 6 elections as they typically are in the mayoral contest, and we can leverage that strength to secure firm commitments on important points of progress.
4. We can’t take it for granted that we will continue to have Black representation in District 5.
Let’s not get comfortable just because we happen to have two African Americans on City Council at the moment – Lisa Wheeler-Bowman in District 7 and Deborah Figgs-Sanders in District 5.
It was only two short years ago when we elected an African American to represent District 5 for the first time (Figgs-Sanders in November 2019).
We’ve only had two African American reps on Council simultaneously for 19 of the 52 years since Bette Wimbish was elected.
This cannot be taken for granted, least of all in District 5, where registered voters are only 37% Black. That’s enough to remain a decisive factor but not a safe “Black seat” by any stretch.
If we fall back in battling for power in District 6, we invite watered down representation. We cede what should be a reliable third vote to the proposals championed by our two African American Councilmembers, and we weaken our position in any battle where the Council vote will be close or controversial.
Whether we re-elect Driscoll or elect Summers, NOW is the time to ask the tough questions, and expect on-the-record answers about the urgent “next level” actions needed to achieve the breakthroughs at hand.