Tampa Bay primary heats up
BY DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
ST. PETERSBURG – Three Black politicians are pitted against a wealthy newcomer in one of this election season’s most closely-watched Senate Democratic primaries.
State Reps. Darryl Rouson and Ed Narain, former House member Betty Reed, and trial lawyer Augie Ribeiro are vying to replace outgoing state Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat leaving office because of term limits.
For nearly 30 years, voters have chosen a Black senator to represent them in previous permutations of the minority-access district. This year’s contest between Democrats has opened up old wounds of racism and sparked “battle of the bridge” acrimony in the race for the newly redrawn Senate District 19, which spans Tampa Bay and includes portions of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
The contest has ignited animosity between Reed, who left office due to term limits two years ago, and her successor, Narain. Reed endorsed Narain in 2014, but Narain has earned the Tampa grandmother’s wrath for reneging on his promise not to challenge her in a bid for the Senate seat.
Local political insiders believe Black voters could split between Rouson, Narain and Reed, opening up the possibility that Ribeiro could capture enough votes to win Aug. 30. Whoever wins the Democratic primary is expected to go to Tallahassee.
While about 75 percent of the district is in Hillsborough County, Democratic primary turnout is more evenly split, and up to 45 percent of voters this month could come from Pinellas, according to analyses of the past two elections.
Narain, a 39-year-old AT&T executive, has the backing of a number of business organizations, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce. He said he was urged by supporters to enter the race earlier this year, after Reed’s campaign struggled with financing. As of the last publicly available totals, Narain had spent about $163,000 of the $202,000 he’d raised for the race.
Reed, who won’t give her age but boasts of having 13 grandchildren, had raised about $30,000 and spent $12,000. She is banking on the relationships she developed with constituents during the eight years she served in the House.
Over coffee in downtown St. Petersburg, Narain, whose wife is a public school teacher, said he has a “record of standing up for progressive values in the state of Florida.”
Joyner, a Tampa lawyer and civil rights activist, heaped praise on Narain, saying he has “built relationships” and delivered funding for local projects during his short tenure in the House.
Narain likened a win by Rouson – a onetime Republican who has alienated Democrats over the years by sometimes bucking caucus positions – to “having another Republican in that seat, and that’s not something we can afford.”
At his law office on Central Avenue, Rouson – a former prosecutor – is unabashed about his record, pointing out his accomplishments in the GOP-controlled Legislature as well as the five years he served as president of the NAACP’s St. Petersburg chapter.
“Anyone who knows me knows that my leadership style has been a shake-’em-up, a loving confrontation, strong on what’s right for the people – not necessarily tied to corporate interests – but the people,” Rouson, 61, said, with a subtle dig at the business community’s support for Narain.
Rouson shrugged off Joyner’s endorsement of Narain.
“Everyone looks for endorsements, but endorsements don’t win elections. The best endorsement will be my record and the vote that happens on Aug. 30,” said Rouson, who had raised about $108,000 and spent nearly $73,000 as of the latest available figures.
The three Black candidates and their supporters are united in one respect. They all paint Ribeiro as a Johnny-come-lately who is out of touch with the needs of the Black community.
Joyner called Ribeiro a “carpetbagger” – he moved permanently to St. Petersburg in 2013 – who “has a lot of money and wants to buy a seat” but who hasn’t earned the right to represent the district.
“He’s never walked in the shoes of a Black person. He has no idea … of what it is to be Black in America. To have the audacity to walk in with a fist full of money. … It’s degrading. He should be ashamed of himself,” she said in a telephone interview this week.
“Where was he when we’ve had all these fights in the Legislature? All of a sudden he’s a knight in shining armor. Where has he been when we’ve been fighting? I’ve been fighting for all my life and I’ve never heard of Augie Ribeiro.”
Ribeiro, a trial lawyer who entered the race a day before the June 24 qualifying deadline, was originally recruited to challenge incumbent Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican.
But Ribeiro said he opted to instead run for District 19 because that’s where he, his wife – Sarah Lind Ribeiro, a onetime aide to former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker – and their two children live.
Ribeiro loaned his campaign $302,500 in addition to $136,000 he’d received in contributions as of the latest filing. He’d spent more than $293,000, most of it on mailers and television ads since entering the race.
Ribeiro began a recent lunch meeting at Cassis, a popular restaurant on downtown Beach Drive in St. Petersburg just blocks away from his $2.3 million condo, by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, when asked why he chose to enter the political fray.
“There comes a time when silence is betrayal,” Ribeiro said. He is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and touts the philanthropic work he’s done in St. Petersburg, Tampa and in Connecticut, where his law firm is based.
Fought big companies
Ribeiro represented the city of St. Petersburg in the fight for compensation from BP after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s also made a fortune representing plaintiffs in lawsuits against General Motors and drug manufacturers.
“I have a track record that’s different than the other candidates,” he said. “I don’t let anyone stop me when we have a cause I think is just.”