Two and a half years ago, Jennifer Webb went to Massachusetts to celebrate one sister’s college graduation and try to convince another sister that her life mattered.
It was too late. Beset by drug addiction and depression, her troubled sister did the unimaginable: She killed herself in front of her family.
Education: Louisiana State University, two bachelor’s degrees; University of South Florida, master’s degree
Occupation: Director of community partnerships, USF Tampa
Political Experience: None
“We were running toward her as she shot herself,” said Webb, 36. “I gave her mouth to mouth – you want to do something, anything.”
That searing experience changed her life, Webb said. Her sister’s death was a jarring reminder that “we have a finite amount of hours every day. We can’t put things off.”
It also spurred Webb’s desire to reform Florida’s mental health and drug dependency programs, issues that help drive her first campaign for public office.
It’s a daunting challenge. The incumbent, Kathleen Peters, a self-proclaimed former Little League mom and mayor of South Pasadena, is seeking a third term. She portrays herself as a moderate Republican and has raised $346,210, more than twice as much as Webb.
But Webb, a resident of Gulfport and director of community partnerships at USF Tampa, is optimistic about her chances. The district is almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. President Barack Obama carried it in 2008 and 2012.
She and her spouse, Cynthia Wurner, a teacher, “cannot have children,” Webb said, so “we would use the energy that it would take to raise children to help our community.”
She would not settle for “symbolic victories,” she said. “We need substantive change.”
If elected Nov. 8, she promises to oppose higher utility and insurance rates, protect drinking water and address sea level rise, and return control of education to local school boards.
Webb supports the proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana but opposes the solar power amendment being pushed by the state’s utility companies.
She wants Florida to stop rejecting the federal money that would substantially expand the state’s Medicaid coverage. She favors more thorough background checks on gun buyers and a ban on assault weapons. She calls for more investment in mental health and substance abuse treatment.
“For too long, big special interests have gotten their way in Tallahassee, and we are paying the price,” she says in an advertisement. “Let’s put the people of Pinellas first.”
Public service is in her DNA, Webb said.
She lost her father in a motorcycle accident a week before her second birthday. Her stepfather, “the only dad I have ever known,” was a longtime assistant district attorney in Louisiana who sparred with BP and other corporate giants. Her uncle was the state’s commissioner of agriculture and forestry.
Other family members have had careers in health care, small business and education.
Webb has bachelor’s degrees in history and anthropology from Louisiana State University. For three years she owned a social science consulting firm that focused on economic and workforce development in western Massachusetts.
She moved to Florida to earn a master’s in applied anthropology at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she is now director of community partnerships.
In that job, she said, she works with USF faculty, businesses and nonprofit organizations to “create stronger communities.”
Darja Perisic is a student journalist attending the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Journalism and Mass Communications Department. This story was produced as part of the Media and the Elections class this semester, under the leadership of instructor Robert Hooker.