PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Republicans vying for the opportunity to unseat Rep. Charlie Crist this November weighed in on hot button topics such as the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the coronavirus pandemic during a candidate forum on Wednesday.

What You Need To Know

Candidates Sheila Griffin, Sharon Newby, George Buck, and Amanda Makki were all asked to share their thoughts on the issues during a virtual Suncoast Tiger Bay forum on Wednesday.

Regarding the protests for racial equality and against police brutality that have taken place in Pinellas and across the country over the past two weeks, moderator Adam C. Smith asked the candidates to share their views regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. 

They were united in expressing their disgust about the killing of George Floyd. However, they seemed equally appalled at the reports of violence at some of the protests that have taken place across the country, though there hasn’t been much of that at all in Pinellas. 

“The rioting is disgusting and ruining the tax base of the very people that are complaining about issues in their community,” said Newby, a Clearwater businesswoman. She added that when it came to rogue cops, she didn’t know a single occupation that didn’t have a “few bad apples in it.”

Newby also acknowledged that the death of Floyd was a case of “injustice,” but said that it was more of an indictment against the city of Minneapolis for not providing sufficient funding for training for the Minneapolis Police Department.

“It’s as wrong as wrong can be what happened to [Floyd],” said Makki, a former Capitol Hill staffer and attorney. “I don’t know of a single person who would disagree with that. But what has ensued since then I think, when you look at potentially businesses — I think they were talking about 40,000 businesses had been affected by this — if you look at what has happened: larceny, arson, even stabbing of a police officer. I mean, these are things that we cannot tolerate as a society.”

Makki went on to blast the concept of “defunding the police” being espoused by some progressive groups and local governments over the past week.

“What does that tell you what’s going to happen to the morale of the police if this is the way that we’re treating our first responders?” she asked.

Buck, who unsuccessfully challenged Crist for the congressional seat in 2018, referred to Black Lives Matter and the anti-fascist group known as Antifa in the same sentence when talking about the protesters.

“Right now we Black Lives Matter and Antifa, and so many radical groups, not only domestic but international, because I have good intelligence that there are a lot of international money coming into these groups, along with George Soros,” he said. (Soros is the progressive philanthropist who has been denounced in visceral terms by conservatives).

Griffin, in comparison, took another perspective, referring to what she said were “systemic” issues that have historically taken place against African Americans. For example, she referred to how the country built interstate highways in the 1960’s that literally divided many black communities.

“Like here on 22nd Street in St. Petersburg that was wiped out. They promised that interstate would not cut through those forty-something businesses, but it did. It did in Tampa. It did in Miami. It did in Jacksonville," Griffin said. "So when you’re looking at African Americans, most people don’t understand why they’re not prospering. It’s systemic, because it’s planned.”

When asked about how well they could work across the aisle if Joe Biden were elected over Trump, Buck said he was ready to work across the aisle.

“We’ve got to stop this partisanship. This is killing our country,” he said. He also mentioned his friendship with Pinellas Democratic state Rep. Jennifer Webb.

Makki agreed, saying she believed that the two parties should collaborate on infrastructure projects.

“What is the problem? There’s no politics in infrastructure,” she said.

Newby said she was so pro-Trump that the idea that the idea that he could lose is beyond her imagination. 

“Because the choice we’re being offered is a gentleman that belongs in a home,” she said in disparaging the 77-year-old Biden. “The only thing I worry about is he will withdraw, and we will see a stronger Democrat candidate.”

What about the pandemic?

Although Florida has seen a rising number of COVID-19 cases in the past week, the novel coronavirus was only brought up towards the end of the forum by Smith.

That’s when we learned that both Buck and Newby said that they have no intention of wearing a face mask in public. 

“Masks don’t work,” Buck said, “because you’re inhaling bacteria.”

With more than two million Floridians out of work due to the virus, the candidates were asked if they support extending unemployment benefits. In Florida, those benefits end after 12 weeks, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has not made any moves to extend that period.

Meanwhile, federal unemployment checks for those who have lost their job because they were laid off due to the virus are due to expire next month.

Griffin said she didn’t mind extending benefits at the state level, but did at the federal level.

Makki didn't directly respond to the unemployment question, but said that she had serious concerns about the number of programs that weren't truly necessary to be in the CARES bill and would like the opportunity if elected to see if there was anyone up to "clawing back" some of that funding.

Regarding the environment, none of the candidates supported expanding offshore drilling. The question and the candidates' responses came before POLITICO reported that the Trump administration plans to push for oil and gas drilling off of Florida's coast after the November election.

The fifth candidate in the race, Air Force Veteran Anna Paulina Luna, did not participate in the debate.

This was one of the first major forums in this race.  Another one is scheduled later this month.