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Attendees sound off on debate
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SEMINOLE - Pinellas County voters in District 13 were left with plenty to talk about following the hour-long debate between Republican David Jolly, Libertarian Lucas Overby and Democrat Alex Sink at St. Petersburg College's Seminole campus Monday night.

The three candidates are vying to fill the U.S. House of Representatives seat left vacant in that district when Rep. C.W. Bill Young died in October. The winner will be chosen in a March 11 special election.

Several who were in the audience for the debate lauded the event's fast-paced format, which featured a lightning round where single-word yes or no answers were encouraged and questions where candidates were given more time - 30 to 60 seconds - to respond.

"I have to commend the (debate's) sponsors and moderators," said the Rev. Fr. Robert Swick, commander, JFK 1963 chapter and veterans advocate, of Dunedin. "They worked hard to come up with an interesting format."

Jeff Johnson, state director for AARP Florida, which sponsored the event, thought the format allowed for "really good discussions on a variety of issues."

He added, "I think the moderators did a good job. They jumped around, but in a good way, and kept the pace up. It kept the candidates on their feet."

Seminole City Councilor Chris Burke also commended the break from "the usual debate format," particularly the lightning section.

"You didn't just get the candidates up there going, 'Blah blah blah,'" he said, which kept the audience more engaged.

Of the many topics discussed, different issues resonated with different attendees.

Camille Christian, a student at SPC, of Safety Harbor, was very interested in what the candidates had to say on the issue of financial aid for college and immigration law. But she was disappointed they didn't spend more time discussing legalizing marijuana.

Corey Harpin of Clearwater agreed that student loans were a hot topic of the night.

"We need to reform the way funds are given out so students can afford to go to school," he said.

But he wishes the candidates had spent more time discussing education reform overall.

"I have a 14-month-old son at home," he said. "The decisions we make today are going to affect him."

An operations manager at a manufacturing factory, Harpin also felt that the topic of expanding manufacturing jobs in the county and supporting small, local businesses should have been discussed.

Though AARP members each have their own set of interests, all can appreciate discussions on social security, healthcare and Medicaid, Johnson said.

But one question he thinks candidates should have answered at the debate: "How can people currently working ever afford to retire?"

It's an important question to consider, he said, with "pensions going away" and an unstable economy.

Burke wishes "more time was spent on the goals for District 13. We didn't get any of their thoughts on the topic."

Two issues stood out for Seminole City Councilor Patricia Plantamura: immigration reform and healthcare.

Immigrants enrich both America's culture and its economy, she said. "Statistical data shows that immigrants are business creators. They're consumers. They're living in homes. They're a wonderful aspect of life in this country."

She added, "It's a non-partisan issue. Congress just needs to get it done."

As for the candidates themselves, Burke felt there was no clear winner in the debate.

"Each candidate won on different topics," he said.

Undecided on which candidate to support, he said he came to Monday's debate "curious to see who they are and what they have to say."

"I liked David Jolly's answer on being from Pinellas County," Burke said. "I think he won on the local versus carpetbagging debate."

As for Sink, she "overstated her bipartisanship," Burke said, and "lost time where she could have been more specific" on various issues.

He was also impressed by Overby, whom he didn't know much about prior to the debate.

"He was very well-spoken and informed on the issues," he said.

Swick, a Democrat who supports Jolly, agrees.

"The young man, the libertarian, did a very fine job," he said. "I liked his poise and his strength of fact. Everything he said was backed up by facts."

He added, "I didn't appreciate Sink. It seemed like she was hogging up the time."

Christian, initially an undecided voter, didn't know much about any of the candidates prior to the debate.

"I thought all three candidates had something good to say," she said.

But now she supports Sink, she said. "She seemed very sincere and I appreciated that she shared her personal experiences."

Harpin was also undecided going into the debate and left it "fairly confident" that he will vote for Sink.

"I really liked her," he said, "and how she stayed on topic. I was taken aback by the runaround Jolly gave us. I didn't feel like he gave very direct answers" on issues like the Affordable Care Act.

Plantamura, a supporter of Sink before the debate, was also "not very happy with Mr. Jolly's answer on the Affordable Care Act." Because of the ACA, she's had healthcare since Jan. 1, she said.

"Republican or Democrat - this is a bipartisan benefit," she said. "I was very disappointed in (Jolly's) shallow answer."

As for the debate as a whole, Plantamura said SPC has a lot to be proud of.

"This whole event is a feather in the cap of the city of Seminole," she said.

SPC Seminole's provost, Dr. James Olliver, said the school and its Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions, were honored to host the event.

"St. Petersburg College always welcomes the opportunity to be a community partner," he said. "And promoting civic engagement is one of the Institute's primary missions. Debating the policy issues, followed by informed voting, is what democracy is all about."

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