During the Youth Voter Engagement Conversation with Mayor of St. Petersburg Rick Kriseman on Thursday, Oct. 22, one audience member talked about her experience as a 54-year-old Black woman becoming more involved in politics and going to college again.
“My thing is with the electoral votes and everything, and by me being a minority, a lot of us are thinking, ‘Okay, why should we vote ... if we're not going to be the deciding vote at the end of the deal?’” she said. “So my question is, what's your intake on that and what would you say to us when we're questioning this and wondering if it's even worth us voting,” she said.
At a rally the previous weekend, Kriseman said, he spoke about how this ballot has more than two candidates.
“Our environment is on the ballot. Healthcare is on the ballot. Education is on the ballot. Racism and anti semitism are on the ballot. Equity and social justice are on the ballot,” Kriseman said. “Who we vote for, and who wins this election, impacts all of those issues and all of those issues impact you, your communities, they impact me, but in particular they impact the African American community.”
Kriseman said if a person does not vote, then they are not helping to decide who makes the decisions that impact people everyday.
“I'm probably going to get political here and I'm sorry if I do,” Kriseman said. “I don't know that I ever in my lifetime dreamt, I never thought I would dream of the day where I would see the president of our country say that white supremacists are some fine people. I just never thought I would see that.”
The virtual Youth Voter Engagement Conversation with Kriseman was moderated by junior Alex Gordon, Florida PIRG at Eckerd chapter chair, and senior Darren Shay, Student Government Association president at SPC’s southern campus. Gordon and Shay talked to Kriseman about the importance of youth voter engagement, as well as their own experiences as young leaders in politics. The conversation was held on Zoom, and Leah McRae*, director of education for the city of St. Petersburg, moderated the audience Q-and-A session.
Kriseman went on to say that too many elections have come down to people not voting.
“I look back at it, at the last election for governor,” Kriseman said. “The African American vote, in particular, in South Florida was below where it had been four years prior to that. If it had been at the same level, we might be talking about a Governor Gillum as opposed to a Desantis.”
Shay and Gordon asked Kriseman how he became mayor of St. Petersburg.
Kriseman said he was born in Detroit and his family moved to Florida in 1972. He has spent most of his life in St. Petersburg, from elementary school to getting a degree in broadcasting at the University of Florida. Kriseman ran for St. Pete City Council in 1999.
“I lost, but the lesson to learn is: if you're interested in politics, don't quit, don't give up. If you run and lose, don't stop, stay involved, stay engaged,” Kriseman said.
His opponent resigned a year later to run for State House, and Kriseman became a part of the council. He was reelected in 2001 and 2003, and successfully ran for State House in 2006, ran unopposed in 2008 and won again in 2010.
“I think after six years of being in the House, of being very frustrated because I felt like the idea didn't matter. What mattered was what party you were in, or who was writing the checks. I decided to come back home, leave state politics and run for mayor,” Kriseman said.
Shay’s and Gordon’s next question was what were some effective ways to involve the youth.
Kriseman said he thinks it is critical for elected officials to engage with young people, whether they are younger children or a college-level government class. He also said that when he has in state legislator, he noticed that representatives placed great importance on young voices.
“I think all of us recognize, first off, that it was harder for you all to do it,” Krisman said. “It was hard to get there, was hard on your schedule, financially, and it's not a comfortable thing for somebody who is, 17, 18, 19, 20 years old to go up and talk to a state representative or senator that's probably in their 50’s or 60’s.”
Shay and Gordon asked what Kriseman about the biggest issues impacting the St. Petersburg community.
He said the number one issue currently is the COVID-19 pandemic and balancing community safety with the impact on the economy and jobs. Another large issue, which Kriseman said he has been passionate about for a long time, is climate change.
“For me, it's been all about trying to get this city, which is one of the most vulnerable and average cities in the country, prepared for climate change and for sea level rise and to get us to become a more resilient, sustainable community,” Kriseman said.
Kriseman discussed other projects, such as St. Petersburg reducing poverty faster than the national, state and Tampa Bay region average. He also said St. Petersburg needs more affordable housing for low-income individuals and blue-collar working class. Improving mass transit is also one of his goals, including bringing bike shares and e-scooters to the area.
“We just have to give people more options to get them out of their cars, which also helps us become more renewable and reduce our CO2 emissions,” Kriseman said.
Another example is the redevelopment happening on Tropicana Field, which is a place Kriseman said has had a long history in St. Petersburg, especially in the African American community.
“We've made a concerted effort to make sure that whatever we do in the redevelopment of that site that we honor that past,” Kriseman said. “But we're going to have continued outreach into the community on that issue and what that would look like.”
The next audience member asked Gordon and Shay what made them get involved in politics at such a young age.
Gordon, who is from Houston, said her grandparents were activists and her own parents raised her to have a voice.
“I didn't actually know that it was politics and social change I was interested in,” Gordon said.
On her second day at Eckerd, Gordon tried to figure out how to request her absentee ballot, and met current President of ECOS Will Shedden, who was part of the News Voters Project of PIRG. She then decided to get more involved with PIRG.
“I realized that what I cared about was the issue of environmental change and protecting our environment,” Gordon said, “but I wanted to do that on a social level and wanted to bring people into that movement, people like myself who cared about these issues and maybe didn't know what to do about it.”
Gordon went on to do environmental activism work, and be a part of Eckerd’s Break Free From Plastics Campaign.
“The key for me is just bringing other people, marginalized groups, people of color, young people who might not know that they can take action on these issues right now,” Gordon said. “You don't have to wait until you have a degree or job. If I had known that when I was a kid, I probably would have been involved a lot sooner, so hoping to do that for a lot of other people as well.”
Shay said he got involved in the Student Government Association (SGA) at SPC because he saw that many clubs, including SGA, were struggling with attendance and numbers.
“I just kind of said to myself like, ‘I'm not happy with this, and I know I can do a better job,’” Shay said.
The virtual conversation ended by Kriseman, Gordon, Shay and McRae asking everyone to vote in the Nov. 3 election.
*Correction: Leah McRae's first name was spelled "Lisa" in the original upload*