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Friday August 22nd 2014

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On The Hot Seat

Pensacola Mayoral Candidates Answer Tough Questions
by Rick Outzen

The two candidates for the mayor of Pensacola are very likeable. Both are handsome. Both are good in one-on-one conversations. However, they are very different people.

Mike Wiggins is the veteran incumbent. He is part of the Pensacola “Rat Pack,” which has included over the years Buzz Ritchie, Dick Appleyard, Garrett Walton, Dick Baker and Dan Gilmore, and which has dominated Pensacola for the past two decades. Rebuild Northwest Florida, United Way of Escambia, Korean War memorial and dozens of other charities have benefited from their leadership and the ability to rally forces for nearly any cause.

Ashton Hayward is over 20 years younger. He’s too cool for a “rat pack,” and his good looks belie his intelligence and work ethic. He is the challenger out to knock the king from his throne.

Wiggins impresses people with his sincerity. Hayward’s sophistication, an unusual trait for a Pensacola native, hits you right away.

Hayward is surprisingly emotional and at times seems uneasy at political forums. Wiggins is smooth at the podium, rarely flustered.

Wiggins says “quite frankly” often when he answers questions. Hayward uses the word “immediately” just as much.

The IN spent over two hours interviewing both candidates, asking questions that pushed them harder than previous Q&A sessions. The goal was to peel back the veneers of their standard campaign rhetoric and gain greater insights into these men, one of which will become the most powerful elected official in the history of Pensacola.

We accomplished our goal.

MUNICIPAL CHARTER REFERENDUM

In November 2009, the voters of Pensacola approved by 7,762–6,308 a new city charter that called for the mayor to become the chief executive officer of the City. First-term Mayor Mike Wiggins opposed the charter, while political newcomer Ashton Hayward III campaigned hard for the new form of city government.

Wiggins says that he never opposed a review of the city charter and always wanted whatever revision that came forth from the Charter Review Commission to be brought before the voters.

“Yeah, I had problems with the charter, specifically the potential for cronyism,” Wiggins says. “I didn’t particularly care for some of the petition requirements as far as turning over city council decisions. I was a little disturbed, a little upset about some of the Sunshine issues, and quite frankly I thought if you had the wrong mayor it could be problematic for the City of Pensacola.”

Hayward took a different approach. “It was time that we changed the way we do business in Pensacola,” Hayward says. “I had been approached about running for city council (in 2008), but you couldn’t get anything done in City Hall as long as you need six votes for anything. We had to change.”

Though his side failed to defeat the new charter, Wiggins is proud that he took a public stand on the issue.

“Some people told me to sit tight, sit back and let it happen, and politically you will be better off,” Wiggins says. “That’s not me. As the mayor, it was incumbent on me to let my opinions be known. They might not have agreed with me, but they knew where their mayor stood.”

Soon after the charter vote, Wiggins made it clear that he would file to run for strong mayor. Did Hayward ever think that he would be running for the post a year later?

“I can’t say it wasn’t in the back of my head,” Hayward says. “I’ve always enjoyed politics. As we got our message out on the charter, I did start to think about the possibility more.”

Would Hayward be running if the real estate market was still booming?

“Most definitely,” Hayward says. “The reason my wife An and I moved back to Pensacola was to help our city grow.”

EXPERIENCE

Wiggins touts his political experience in his campaign. He was first sworn onto the Pensacola City Council in 1995 and served until he was elected mayor in 2008. Wiggins wasn’t elected to his first term. He was chosen by the council to replace Tom Banjanin, who had been elected to the Escambia County Commission.

His work experience includes serving as lieutenant in the Navy and manager of a Tampa department store. He worked for NCR before moving back to help with the family business, Escambia Farmers Supply. He currently owns Wiggins Lawn Spray Service.

Hayward has not held an elected office but has served on the city’s zoning board, its Planning & Architectural Review Board, and the Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor Authority Board.

Before moving back in 2002, he worked in various sales and management positions with AT&T, and later became an advertising manager for the Financial Times in New York. He is a partner in a local real estate development company, Pair and Hayward Properties.

“I truly believe this changeover to strong mayor is going to be a bigger change than a lot of people realize,” Wiggins says. “To make this change it is going to take someone who has been there, knows the budget, knows the staff, knows the community, knows all the organizations and pull it all together and make it work. I’m the guy to do that.”

Wiggins questions the wisdom of electing someone else to be mayor, who he says “lacks quantifiable experience” to do the job.

Hayward bristles at that comment and the suggestion that he is too young to run the $250 million operation that is the City of Pensacola.

“Neither one of us has the experience to run this city the way that it will have to be run in 2011,” Hayward says. “I have 15 years experience working for two of the most reputable companies in the world, AT&T, and The Financial Times. Then I moved home and quietly built a very successful real estate company with my best friend as my partner.

So you don’t think you’re too young to be mayor?

“Absolutely not,” says Hayward. “Some of the most profitable companies in the world today are run by young people. The world has changed. People are no longer given leadership roles solely based on their tenure. Companies are looking for younger CEOs that are more in touch with what is going on.”

CHANGE IN GOVERNMENT

Both candidates believe Pensacola city government will be dramatically different a year from now if they are elected.

Hayward says, “That we will have a new CAO (Chief Administrative Officer), more than likely. There will be a grants office within the mayor’s office. I will be engaged with the local businesses, talking with them, finding out how we can break down barriers and help them.”

Accessibility and accountability will be the changes that Wiggins will bring to the office.

“People will know who to come to,” says Wiggins. “They can come to me. I am accessible. I will listen.

“I think the most important point is that as the strong mayor I can get things done faster. You will see us move faster. We will be more efficient. You will be able to bypass a lot of the bureaucracy simply because you’ve got a strong mayor who is your ‘go to guy’ that can make a decision.”

Wiggins has pledged to conduct a nationwide search for the CAO. However, he won’t start the search until he is ready.

“I have no timetable,” Wiggins says. “We’re going to have to get in place and see how this works. If you think that we’re going to suddenly have a fully functioning strong mayor form of government right off the bat, then you’re kidding yourself.”

Hayward says that he will conduct a national search, too, but is open to local and regional talent applying for the position.

BUSINESSES & JOBS

Both candidates were reluctant to give specific benchmarks by which they could be objectively measured during their term of office, which isn’t surprising.

Wiggins talks about job creation and ties his benchmark to the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce’s new economic development initiative, Vision 2015.

“I embrace the new Vision 2015 program of the chamber,” Wiggins says. “I embrace the new director, Jim Hizer.”

But isn’t that like saying you’re for mom and apple pie? What mayor wouldn’t support job creation and Vision 2015?

“I’m getting there,” Wiggins says. “One thing I can do as mayor is make the city like the Richard Florida model. If I can get the tech park up, if I can get the downtown flourishing, if I can keep taxes low, if I can have a good workforce, if I can do all those things, it is a city where businesses want to come, which all ties into the Hizer plan. That to me is critical.”

Hayward says, “It’s time for us to welcome outsiders into our community. In the past 24 hours, I’ve met with two companies. One has gross sales of $23 million and 63 employees with an average salary of $72,000. The owner said no one from the city has ever come to visit him. I just met with another owner today–same thing. Why aren’t we as a city talking to these business owners and asking for their help with solutions in how to make this city grow?

Hayward talks a great deal about taking on the establishment and the “good old boys.” One of his campaign slogans has been “It’s our city. Let’s take it back.”

His family roots in this community are as deep, or deeper, than Wiggins. How can the challenger label himself an “outsider?”

“Yes, my mom’s family moved here from Milwaukee in the early 1900s,” says Hayward. “My dad’s family came here from New Orleans in 1927.

“But the different glasses that I look through are that I have worked for diverse, multi-national corporations and lived in a multi-cultural city, which gives me a different, more diverse view of the world. I look at Pensacola, not from the view of my inheritance or that my family is entitled to this, but from how I could make this city grow, be more open, be more diverse.”

PROPERTY TAXES

The City of Pensacola last raised its property tax rate over 16 years ago. However, property tax bills have risen due to the increase in property values over that period. Both candidates have pledged to not raise property taxes.

Is this pledge really necessary?

“If you’re going to be the strong mayor, you’ve got to let your people know,” Wiggins says. “You and I know that we’ve never raised property taxes, but when I get into the neighborhoods and out in front of people, that’s a huge issue to them. You’ve got to let people know this, even though I’ve never been on a city council that raised taxes.”

Hayward wants to see the city cut its property tax rates.

Recently, Councilwoman Diane Mack, who placed third in the mayoral primary and is supporting Wiggins, hinted on her blog, pensacolaforthepeople.blogspot.com, that council members wanted to raise the tax rates and that Wiggins is the only candidate who would veto such a measure.

In a telephone interview later, Mack said that Sam Hall, Maren DeWeese and Larry Johnson were the council members to whom she was referring. All three support Hayward.

Does Hayward have a pact with the trio to raise taxes?

“That’s ludicrous,” says Hayward. “It’s grandstanding by Ms. Mack, who has some ill feelings about being beat in the primary. She’s betting on her horse, Mike, right now, which is kind of ironic—she never did much with him before now.”

SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET

Both candidates have had their share of personal attacks. Mike Wiggins supports annexation for the city and has since 2007. Yet, his business is partially in the city limits and partially in the county–something he could remedy with a letter to the city requesting to be incorporated.

Ashton Hayward was arrested in 1990 for trying to obtain a fake driver’s license when he was 20 years old. Hayward entered the pre-trial intervention program and the case was never prosecuted.

Mack and Charles Bare, the other mayoral candidates in the August primary, have both questioned Hayward’s character. Bare also supports Wiggins.

“I think it is ridiculous,” Hayward says. “In college I wanted to get a fake ID. I wanted to get into the night clubs, like every college student, to dance and have a good time. I think it’s a non-issue. I’ve made mistakes, done things that I’m not proud of.

“That’s one that I learned from. Some of our greatest presidents have made mistakes and have gone on to give incredible community service.”

Hayward believes people will see through the motives of his attackers.

“I didn’t know Diane Mack until she took down one of the establishment in the 2008 election. I had never heard of Charles Bare.

“People here know who Ashton Hayward is. When we moved back, An and I immediately inserted ourselves into the community. I volunteered down at the city, spending hours at no pay. And we have given back in a philanthropic way at a major level.

“I think the attacks are very petty and very small-minded.”

Wiggins laughs off the attacks about his property, too.

“Have you looked at the map,” Wiggins says. “I’ve got one little building that’s kind of in the south part of the property in the county. It’s such a little piece that it’s not worth the administrative cost to put it inside the city.”

AFRICAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITY

The race between Wiggins and Hayward appears to be close. The African-American community, which voted heavily for Wiggins in the primary, may play a major role in deciding the race. The African-American city council members are supporting their council colleague, Wiggins, as are the older black leaders, such as Commissioner Marie Young and Georgia Blackmon.

Hayward has the support of childhood friend Lumon May and his brother, Rev. LuTimothy May.

One issue in the African-American community has been a disparity study to help the city establish a stronger minority-inclusion program for city contracts. The city council has yet to approve such a study that could cost around $300,000.

“I think the disparity study may need to be done county-wide,” Wiggins says. “It’s a very expensive study. The first step is to see if the county is ready to go in with us on the study.

“We need to continue to get our SBE (Small Business Enterprise) percentages up.  I looked it up recently, second quarter, we had it up to 18 percent.”

Hayward doesn’t want to wait for the county on the study.

“A big issue is we have generational wealth and generational poverty,” Hayward says. “One area we can help with is procurement. There is a huge disparity. We all know it. However, we need to quantify with a full disparity study because we need those stats to effectively go out and help these individuals and to help us get money at the state and federal level. I don’t need to wait to talk with the county.”

The other issue in the African-American community is the West Side development plan that the city spent much of the last decade developing with the help of the residents in that area. A Community Redevelopment District was formed in 2007 to supposedly fund the plan, but it hasn’t accumulated any funds because its real estate values have declined.

“I’m not trying to pass the buck, but real estate has declined,” Wiggins says. “We are sitting there with a negative CRA and no funds to do what we want to do–signage, sidewalks, everything that we normally do in a CRA.

“Now where do we go from here? What can we do to get things kicked off? We can start on A Street. We don’t have any CRA funds, but maybe we can use some of the neighborhood initiative monies, maybe get some of the neighborhood associations to match funds to work on A Street. That is one small step we can do.”

Hayward wants to set up a grants office at City Hall to help funding for the West Side plan.

“We need to beautify those neighborhoods, which will help build a sense of community,” Hayward says. “If the streets and sidewalks are attractive, if the community centers are attractive, if the library is attractive, they will have a sense of community, a sense of confidence.”

Wiggins believes he has a better chance of making anything happen on the west side of Pensacola.

“I can’t make the West Side a very prosperous neighborhood overnight, but we can set some achievable goals and let’s move forward,” Wiggins says. “I believe as mayor I can put together the coalitions to make it work. I’ve got the experience. I know the players. I know the neighborhoods. I know the staff. I can do it, and I’m not convinced my opponent can.”

BATTLING BP

Both Hayward and Wiggins went on national television about the BP oil disaster this past summer.

“I did my share of bad-mouthing BP, but I saw small businesses in big trouble,” says Wiggins. “To support them, I supported tourism. I got out front on a national scene and tried to tell the truth. We were open for business. We needed people to come to Pensacola. Our small businesses depend on the summer tourism. From charter boats to downtown businesses, people were hurting.”

Hayward was also concerned, but wanted the city to hire the best legal team possible to defend itself against BP.

“I went to City Hall and said we need to be sure that we are legally protected, because all our tax revenue had already started declining, as were our property values. We needed to be sure we were properly represented,” Hayward says. “I wanted us to get a surety bond at Bayou Chico. I think my opponent was late to the party.”

Wiggins disagrees. “I was very proactive,” he says. “I spearheaded bringing it to the council and asking, do we want this Bayou Chico operation to occur on this very fragile body of water.”

Since the well has been capped, Wiggins’ focus has been to work with Escambia and Santa Rosa counties to make sure that the area gets a fair share of the recovery funds outlined in the Mabis report. He has asked EPA Secretary Lisa Jackson and White House advisor Carol Browner to come back to Pensacola.

“We can’t sit back and let Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama take the lead on this,” Wiggins says. “I have been very proactive in working on this.”

Hayward is more concerned about the small business owners.

“We need to be all over Feinberg making sure our citizens are covered, because people are losing their homes, their businesses,” says Hayward. “The hotels and those that have been successful have the money to fight BP. The small business owners don’t have the time, energy or money to fight.”

CLOSING SALES PITCHES

Good candidates know how to close. Both Wiggins and Hayward are excellent closers.

Ashton Hayward: “My wife and I chose to move back to a city that we care about and love. I believe that Pensacola is a truly unique city. Just because we are a small city doesn’t mean we have to act like one.

“Wiggins says the city’s inability to deal with problems was the system, not the person. Yet he opposed changing the system. You can’t sell me on the fact that you can’t be a leader because there wasn’t a strong form of government. If everything was good in Pensacola, I wouldn’t be running for mayor.

“We can’t afford four more years of the status quo.”

Mike Wiggins: “I have accomplished a lot in my two years. We had a recession, an oil spill, state-mandated reductions in revenue and yet here we are today with a balanced budget, services are being delivered to our citizens, and we have a vision leading forward. That happened on my watch and I am very, very proud of that.

“I am very cognizant of the fact that I am accountable, and people want things done. I feel like I can easily operate in this new form of government because if you have the right mayor, you make it work.

“I am the right mayor and I will make it work.”

rick@inweekly.net