On Tuesday March 11, Gulfport voters citywide will elect a new Ward Three representative; incumbent council member Jennifer Salmon will step down. We asked both candidates five questions. Read their answers – in their words – below.
The differences that some people have noticed are that one of you states facts and the other offers their opinion of what they think should happen. How do you see your position as a bonus for people?
Paul Ray: Let me correct that. I think that one person does offer facts, and maybe some of them may not be 100% correct, some of them. When I say there's probably more than 40 homes in the city, I was including homes with the stickers in the window saying they've been foreclosed on. To me, they're abandoned buildings... people aren't living in them and homeless people can live in them. That's one of the problems we do have.
The other thing is I think what I have is what I think have offered is facts. What I also hear from the other side is not really facts, it's rhetoric. We need to look at issues and start dialogues, even if you're incorrect, let's start a dialogue. Homeless population in this town is a lot higher than people want to think. When we went up and dropped all that food off to the Senior Center, it was amazing. She turned around and brought out a whole box of these can openers that only cost, what did she say, 48 cents each? She brought them all out because people were coming in and were literally going out on a park bench and eating, eating the food that she was giving them. So I was like, really? This is from the woman at the Senior Center, at the food pantry when we brought in a huge sum of food from Rosie's and other places.
To me, I think that I offer an opinion, not just an opinion but facts. Somebody who is going to research it I'm not going to take a knee-jerk reaction. I want to know all the aspects of it before I"m going to come up with an opinion. When you're running you don't know. One of the council members said to me, "You know what would be really nice, is if I could plug my brain into yours and I could download all the data" because I don't know the questions to ask to get the answers. You only find that out once you're on council, unfortunately.
While Mr. Ray is presenting information,you're saying you need to get more information. Can you address that difference, why one person's so willing to give facts, why are you not comfortable with giving "This, this and this," you're wanting to find more information.
Yolanda Roman: We can probably talk about any specific question that pertains to. I'll be honest, if I'm posed with a question such as single source recycling or reclaimed water or instituting solar panels on municipal buildings or city buildings... there are certain things that I wasn't prepared to discuss and would not want to put guesses or guesstimates or try to quickly think of what that may or may not mean. I know the best thing to do is when you don't know something to really put it out there and say, you know what, that just requires me to vet the information a little bit further, get the information, get the facts from independent sources but also from individuals who may or may not have been involved. If that's where the question's coming from, I know that was a responsible thing for me to do, which then meant that I come back home and I take those questions, like I would do anything else, and look it up, start asking questions, do my research, look at what's happening in other localities and then come informed. So I think that's the difference. I feel comfortable with what I did.
What do you see as the biggest difference in the two candidates? What do you think the difference is? How would you differentiate yourself from the other candidate?
Roman: The good thing is that we do have two candidates and we're both ready for this position and the similarity is that we both have the passion that we want to go ahead and serve for Ward Three on city council. i think some of the diff and this is from observations and you know he's probably vetted me as well as I have him. I consider my experiences, my stability with what I've done career-wise and also, what I think... my involvement in participating things in Gulfport, being involved in our festivals and our festivals and our artistic things, loving our beaches maybe that's a difference maybe not but I think from overall preparedness, I feel that my experiences with what I've done career-wise does enable me to think more alongside the lines of project planning, and business acumen, budget allocations. I've done people management, hiring as well as managing, multi-year budgets, multifunctional budgets and I think that's something in my opinion that differentiates us.
Ray: That's a good question. I think personally that I have – everybody has said the same thing – is that I have a sense of passion. When you hear me talk I'm not reading something off a cue card, it's from the heart. I care about this town. I moved here because I love this town and I want to make sure this town has a really good future. And the only reason I'm in this is not for me, it's for the City of Gulfport. I keep telling people "You didn't vote for me, you voted for Gulfport and its future." And so, to me the greatest –the biggest– difference between the two of us is probably my passion, to be honest with you, in a nutshell, and I think most people would agree. And my hon– no, I wouldn't say honesty, because she's very honest and I happen to actually like Yolanda. We met, we had a really nice talk at a Christmas party... I refuse to... I've actually asked people to step away from my campaign and not even support me because they actually started to throw mud and I said, "No. This is not going to happen. This is my character, you're going to besmirch me by making me look like an idiot. You're not going to do that."
How would you bring the city's processes – from what you can see of them so far – into the 21st century? What technical suggestions would you make to the city as a council person to make life better for the residents?
Ray: What I would really love to see but I don't know how realistic it is, is to be able to see us partner up with, like, Google Fiber and actually wire this whole city with actual fiber optics and then to take 49th Street and put in real businesses, that have access to high-speed Internet that actually could bring in some really high-tech businesses. And I'm sure the Gabber itself would probably appreciate something like that as well. But, I'm just saying, our Internet structure is really, really poor. I've lived in so many better places where I've had much higher speed Internet. I don't have interruptions, I don't have drop-off speeds. I sit there and do a ping on my Internet and you can see the difference during the day, because I work from home a lot as well. I think that would be one thing that would be really, really cool, because that would bring us into the future.
Roman: It's all progress, right? Technology is around us, will continue to be around us, from billing purposes and ordering, we know we do a lot more online and will continue to do so. So the good news is, whatever we have in place today must be very different than what we had in place five years ago, 10 years ago, so if we can trend forward then we've come to a place right now where we're a lot more technology–savvy than we were in the past that just shows me that there's more to come. To your point, moving forward, I would imagine that whatever efficiencies can be found with streamlining, how we process orders and payments and reports, that's a good thing because it gets information to the correct parties in a more timely manner, obviously it gets the information addressed in a timely manner, and I can't imagine anyone would complain about that. So to the extent that we have the IT infrastructure and we have the IT people who can write the programs and really listen to what we should prioritize, that does mean that we become more efficient and I think, from the resident's perspective too, getting information [to] a place [where] you think it can be addressed, and giving you an avenue to place orders or see where your work is done, I think that's welcome. Like anything else, because I'm the first one that years ago started with my online banking, never thought I would do that, now I think it's the best thing since sliced bread – from our city's perspective with managing so many people and budgets and decisions and reports and having to address whatever situation, it looks like it's needed and it looks like we're trending that way, so kudos to us.
Ward Three certainly doesn't get mentioned as much as Ward Two and is not, perhaps, as engaged sometimes as Ward Four or Ward One might be. How do you think the citizens of Ward Three need to be represented? What do you think they need?
Roman: I've done hundreds and hundreds and hundreds with myself and a small core team of the door knocking and one of my approach and priorities is upon knocking on a door is engaging our residents. One of the things that I think we all know is we're Ward Three, we're the Stetson area, some individuals do tell me, or even people outside this ward, oh we don't get a lot of ward three individuals downtown Gulfport. We're this quadrant where a lot of our individuals, we're all residential, not tons of commercial and perhaps we don't engage the city as much, and I'm not sure that's true, but to the extent that I, as a city council person, can be seen on council, whatever discussion is before us, whatever ordinance is before us: policy, budget, what I want to do, and what I've told people that I've seen in this ward... is how is it that I should represent Ward Three? I want to make sure if something's being discussed on water use, how do we look at that? Parking, how do we look at that? Street cleanup or street repairs or alley repairs, I want to always be able to ask that question, OK, so how does that apply to Ward Three? The other thing is, by doing my availability, my sessions, my appointments, standing appointments, making myself available to whomever, is constantly have people bring things to my attention, "What is you think is important that I should be talking about our ward?" We have our park, we're very residential, we have a lot of larger homes here, and a lot of people in Stetson, that's another huge community to engage: the law school, they're huge contributors to society when they leave here as lawyers. What partnering opportunities can we do as a City with that whole community at Stetson?
The other thing... is, we have a lot of festivals and community programs and outreach programs that do take place in or about downtown, now even the Tangerine area with a couple of festivals there. How about Ward Three? What can we do here? Can we bring an event here or can something rotate through Ward Three? We have Caldwell Park, we have other vicinities where we can showcase something that the city's proud of here in Ward Three. I think that would make me proud and perhaps help us engage Ward Three, more so. I do know there's a lot of people here who already do a lot downtown, city wide. I think that's going to be part of my responsibility, understanding what we are about here, what makes us tick, what the needs are, and perhaps some of the issues and potential opportunities that need to be carried forward and that's only going to happen by my engagement on a regular basis. I would like to think that there's a way, either through social media, electronically, or doing something more of the physical nature where I can reach out monthly or quarterly, whatever it may be and say, "Hey, Ward Three, I'm here, let's have a dialogue, a powwow"; community groups, certain streets I can walk and talk to. I think that's the beauty of having different people on council representing the quadrants of the city, because then I think we all can come forward and say, "Listen, we have a lot of things downtown, Ward Two, Ward One, but you know, Ward Three, we can make a difference as well." So I think that's going to be the interesting and fun part of this.
Ray: In my walking from door to door In Ward Three, most of the complaints seem to be concentrated down to two issues, the disrepair of the streets (pot holes) and more local to the 58th Street area, crime. The Stetson College areas seems to see the least amount of crime perhaps due to the schools security patrols in the areas, but along the upper part of 58th they see a great deal more. I have found that Ward Three has a great deal of Stetson college students, elderly people who are long term home owners and many younger families. A great deal of the residents attend occasional events such as the Get Rescued, 4th of July, etc., but for the most part do not wander into the downtown unless they have out of town visitors or an event. It does seem too many of Ward Three tax paying voters that they are not recipients of an equal part of the city’s efforts; we have the least amount of parks and open spaces. Perhaps the proposed GetGo low speed vehicle could be one thing that adds some balance for Ward Three, allowing the students and seniors to venture to the events, bars and restaurants in the downtown without having to drive.
Do you think there has been any diversity issues in the campaign? Do you feel like there's been any negative connotation because of anything about you? How do you feel the diversity card is working in the campaign? Do you feel like you're fighting an uphill battle?
Ray: I don't feel like I"m running an uphill battle at all. And first of all, Yolanda is not black, she's Hispanic. And she's from not quite a state, but almost, eventually will be. So it's kind of like, "I'm from Massachusetts, you're from Puerto Rico." I don't really consider that a big deal. I do, however, have really been upset that I have seen racist issues from some of the people that I speak to when I go door to door, and that really upsets me and it's something that I've discussed with several of the people on multiple occasions. The bottom line? I don't really think that it really matters. I did not want this race to be about me being gay because that's not important. This is 2014. Michael Sams comes out and it was like, who cares? He's a great football player, he's going to go on to great things. Whether he's gay or straight is absolutely irrelevant. Whether or not she's African-American or she's Hispanic has no bearing at all to me. And that's what the bottom line of diversity is. I don't look at people through filters. I look at everybody the same and I take them on face value. So if that ever becomes an issue, I tell you, I'm the first person that's going to come out swinging verbally.
(To Mr. Ray) Have you had any issues? No, not at all. In the beginning I said nothing, and I was told my certain people "Well, you know, we need a woman on council because it's a different viewpoint" and I said, "Well, what about a gay man, and they were, "You're gay?" When I first came out I said nothing, remember, I said nothing, nobody knew I was gay, you know. And I didn't think it should even be part of this, I really didn't and I only briefly mentioned it if you go back to my original writing, it says, "My other half brought me here 14 years ago and he" – that's how I prefaced it. I didn't say I didn't say "my homosexual lover brought me here, I just said, and you can read it from here, and a lot of people still read it and didn't get it. I don't think it's been a negative for me, if anything it's probably been a positive, to be honest with you. And I didn't mean that to be negative about Yolanda, I was negative about the people who were saying that, I was like, that's unacceptable behavior. Unacceptable.
If you are elected you do stand to be the first – for all intents and purposes – black person on council. Has that become a factor in your campaign with people you've talked to in town? Have you sensed that race has started to matter in your campaign?
Roman: Amazingly enough, it has not. Enough people have approached me, and even with my door to door canvassing, or people calling me, with the variety of things, from "I like who you are" to "I like what you said about this" – a variety of reasons. I've heard the woman aspect, which is probably not a surprise. Now, have I head of a couple of individuals saying, "Oh my gosh, it will be our first minority on city council," but i have not seen a trend, I have not seen that "it's time" that you know, "It's something that we need to do to elect her because of her race," and I attribute that to the fact that, I hope, because this is the way I think, that we're beyond color, that we're behind race as part of decision making. I hope people see me for who I am, for what they think I can do, for what they think I can produce and offer the City of Gulfport. It's obvious. I'm a Latina, and my ex husband was an African-American, so my kids identify themselves as both. I always say that I'm doing this how welcoming and good Gulfport has been to me and the quality of life – I use that a lot – I've been afforded here, I wouldn't live anywhere else, and part of that has been that even I didn't see that I needed to be accepted into a community which, you know, 86-plus white community, but I have never felt that my color has been part of my acceptance or not, and I think part of this election, I feel pretty strongly that that's not a factor. Now, may it be with certain people? It may. But it has not become a trend. I'm pretty proud of that fact. Because then it brings it down to just two individuals regardless of our race.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.