Last December, as part of Creative Loafing’s annual auction to raise funds for The Children’s Home, CL offered readers the opportunity to bid on having lunch with a local lawmaker and CL’s news & politics editor — aka yours truly.
The winner? St. Petersburg political blogger extraordinaire Peter Schorsch, editor of St.Petersblog 2.0. His choice of lunch partner was St. Petersburg City Councilman Steve Kornell, a school social worker in Pinellas County who was elected to the council in 2009 and then again in 2012.
We met late last month on a Friday afternoon at La V, the Vietnamese fusion establishment on Central Avenue in downtown St. Pete. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Peter Schorsch (looking at Kornell): You’re a liberal. What do you think of Charlie [Crist] coming into the [Democratic] party?
Steve Kornell: I think whomever our nominee is, I’m going to wholeheartedly support him. If it’s Charlie, I will; if it’s Alex Sink, I will. If it’s some other person, I will. Because I believe Rick Scott is one of the worst governors that we’ve ever had … Alex Sink would be much better than him, and Charlie Crist was much better than him as governor.
CL: What do you make of Scott’s announcement that he wants to give every teacher in the state — not just those who have “merited it,” as the saying goes — a $2,500 raise? Good politics?
SK: It’s a funny thing about teachers. Some of them teach math, and they’re good at it [laughter]. And they know that on the whole the governor has not given them an increase. They have not advanced under this governor, and they’re very low to begin with. And we know that, and aren’t going to forget that.
Bill Foster’s been getting some increased criticism of late, such as [for not being] proactive in preventing the closing of the Sweetbay store in Midtown.
SK: Personally, I’d like to see a more localized store going in there. Same kind of store and same kind of services …
PS: This store was destined to fail the moment Wal-Mart built that store on 34th Street. … The thing that strikes me is, it’s like a tale of two grocery stores, and I think it’s so striking that the Midtown Sweetbay is failing and yet a mile north of it they want to put in a massive Whole Foods. And that speaks to me how difficult it is to be black in St. Pete right now. It’s not that we’ve abandoned Midtown, because we haven’t. But the momentum that we had there is gone after Mayor Baker left. And it’s just difficult. Remember when Bill Foster said he wanted to be the first black mayor of St. Petersburg? I just want to ask him — have you accomplished your goal? Because I think it’s more difficult to be black in St. Petersburg since …
Well, people said this would happen after Goliath Davis was let go two years ago. Foster said he would be “the guy” in Midtown. That was two years ago. What has happened since?
SK: I’d like to see our whole economic philosophy change about growing local businesses, growing what we have here. Look at Kahwa Coffee, for example. They’re locally owned; they have at least three locations. They’ve gone into Tampa (and maybe more). They have a production facility that’s here. I’d like to see us help them grow bigger. I don’t know that we do that very well. We’re great at recruiting, like if Starbucks said they were interested in leaving Seattle, we’d go out there and we’d recruit ’em and we’d wine and dine ’em and talk to them. But we’re not good at taking our local [businesses] and saying, “Let’s help you become the next Starbucks.” I think that should be an emphasis, because when you do that, you build up your corporate base, and then things like we have in Midtown tend to happen differently because you have an executive that’s from your city who cares about your city and understands what it means to live in Midtown, that maybe somebody sitting in an office in Belgium just looking at a ledger sheet doesn’t understand. And I think that we can do both. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t recruit those other companies. But we should invest more in our local businesses.
PS: It is a fair discussion. I think our friend [and now declared City Council candidate] David McKalip is on the other side of this discussion — there’s something to be said about his point that this is an example of government gone wrong. We tried to subsidize the free market. It didn’t work. We artificially messed with …
You’re choosing winners and losers.
PS: And you have to remember, there are people in this town who don’t think we should do anything about Midtown. Or do anything to save a grocery store there. There are a lot of business owners saying, “Why are you saving Midtown and not saving Phil’s Auto Shop on 34th Street North or whatever?”
What about the Manhattan Casino/Sylvia’s opening?
SK: It’s in progress.
PS: I do not see that succeeding. I’ve never believed in Manhattan Casino. I’m not cheerleading against it. I just think that it seems like Foster is putting a lot of eggs in that basket, and I just.... you could put three Outbacks there and I think it would be tough for a restaurant to succeed right there. I don’t know. I think when Sylvia [Woods, who co-founded Sylvia’s in Harlem] died, some of the momentum shifted away again. It’s going to be a tough project, that’s all I can say. Hopefully I’m wrong.
SK: I think we have to try something. Hopefully it will work, but if it doesn’t, I feel like the city’s interests are protected. I know there were some questions about some of the wording [in the contract], and that got changed to where I feel comfortable that the city is protected. Now that doesn’t mean that Sylvia’s is going to work, you’re right. There’s no guarantee at all.
PS: There’s not on anything.
SK: It’s a free market.
If I can change the subject to gun control. Steve, you’ve been a standout in trying to craft some policies to deal with gun violence. What are your thoughts in the aftermath of Newtown?
SK: Let me make this very clear: I understand state preemption. I’m not proposing an ordinance, I’m proposing a discussion with Tallahassee about them proposing an ordinance that they are legally allowed to do. … The NRA and their advocates are bullies and they want to stifle discussion … A huge number of gun owners I spoke were shocked to learn how easy it is to buy a gun without a background check. They owned guns, they’re against giving them up, but they think everybody should have a background check, universal background checks.
The polls show that there is really strong support for that. Not among gun-owner groups, however. Marion Hammer [formerly of the NRA, now with United Sportsmen of Florida] wrote an op-ed yesterday strongly opposing it. Excessive government regulation, she says.
SK: The [NRA] is not about representing the gun owners now, they are representing the gun manufacturers. They make money off it, and that’s all they seem to care about. And on the local level, when we have people that are being affected by these crimes — I have to care about [that] more than just gun manufacturers making money. Universal background checks I’ve asked for. I’ve asked for a ban on assault weapons, I think it’s the right thing to do. And by the way, for the people who say I don’t know the difference between automatic and semi-automatic weapons, I do. … I would ban assault weapons, I would ban the high-capacity magazines. I would change the laws.
I think one of the key things, other than universal background checks, is traceability of the guns. And what the NRA has done, which is really offensive to me, is over and over criticized our police officers for not enforcing laws. Well, I can guarantee you, our St. Pete police officers don’t look at our citizens with a gun and say, ‘Oh, that’s illegal, but we don’t enforce that.’ That’s not true. The laws are written — as lobbied by the NRA — as almost impossible to enforce … I’ll tell you this: Grover Norquist will never extract a pledge out of me, and the NRA will never dictate to me on guns. I will make a decision that’s fair and balanced that respects gun ownership but also protects people. What you’ll never hear me do is criticize our hard-working police officers by saying the problem is them — I couldn’t disagree more. The problem is legislators beholden to special interests. …
PS: I got a Living Social deal the other day for a Doomsday Prepping package. And I’m just like: how crazy is it that we have a Doomsday Special on Living Social, like a Groupon? I think this has somehow infected the mainstream, and I think we’re protecting the rights of a couple of hundred thousand people.
I will tell you that there is a senior, senior legislator, who is a huge doomsday prepper. … I talked to his chief of staff about it. I said, ‘I can’t believe — did you hear about your boss? He has a doomsday plan?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, so, what’s your problem? You don’t have like 12 months of food stored up?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m not worried about zombies taking over.’
But I kid you not. This is a person that definitely has affected policy over the last four years and he thinks the world is going to end because of EMP pulse or something like that. That’s the mentality, that’s so far removed from what you’re trying to get across … I’ll put it this way: there’s a lot of doomsday preppers up in Tally. … And it probably doesn’t surprise you, but amongst our legislative leadership, they are not expecting the best things down the road.
I guess not.