Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice rode into office four years ago with a promise to reverse the commission’s controversial 2011 decision to remove fluoride from the county’s water system.
Now he is running for re-election against an opponent who is sharply critical of a different County Commission decision – a 2013 vote to block a luxury condominium project in Safety Harbor.
Education: St. Petersburg College, associate degree; University of South Florida, bachelor’s degree
Occupation: County commissioner
Political Experience: Florida House of Representatives, 2000-2006; Florida Senate, 2006-2010; unsuccessful candidate for Congress, 2010; Pinellas County Commission, 2012-present
Justice kept his promise to restore fluoridation. And he is adamant that the Safety Harbor vote was proper, even though a Circuit Court judge disagreed and ordered the county to pay $16.5 million to the condo developer. The county is appealing the ruling.
“I will have no problem sleeping tonight knowing that we stood up for the people of Safety Harbor,” Justice said. “They didn’t want that apartment complex.”
Justice’s opponent in the Nov. 8 election has another view, however.
Mike Mikurak, a Republican, has sharply criticized Justice for that vote and asserted that he – a retired businessman and consultant – is better suited for the commission than a “career politician” like Justice.
Justice, a Democrat, was the only incumbent commissioner to draw an opponent, and Mikurak has proven formidable. He has community connections built on his service on several boards, and he has raised $147,487 to Justice’s $100,532.
Justice, 48, grew up in St. Petersburg and graduated from Boca Ciega High School. He earned an associate degree at St. Petersburg College and a bachelor’s at the University of South Florida.
Justin began working for USF St. Petersburg in 1999 as a special assistant to campus CEO Bill Heller, overseeing grants and connecting students to the community.
As USFSP grew into a four-year institution, Justice took a role advising incoming freshmen and undergraduate students. In that role, he said, he learned the state laws that impact student education.
“This area is my past,” Justice said. “It’s my present, where I live with my wife and two beautiful daughters. And, hopefully, it will be their future, but the only way to make that happen is to work together.”
Justice parlayed his knowledge about state laws into a successful campaign for the state House of Representatives in 2000. He said he ran because he wanted to be more involved and have direct input over the decisions that affected the community. He ran successfully for state senator in 2006 to get even closer to decision making.
But life in Tallahassee wasn’t always harmonious. Being a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican Legislature often meant frustration and political friction.
“You spend more of your time stopping the bad stuff than you do creating the good stuff,” Justice said. The Great Recession of 2007-2009 led to massive spending cuts to government programs and aid, heightening political partisanship.
Justice spent one term as a senator before running for Congress against U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young in 2010.
When he lost, he returned to a job in USFSP’s leadership program, where he focused on connecting students to the St. Petersburg community through extracurricular activities and volunteering.
During his two years with the program, Justice met Allison Nall, a graduate of the university who is now Justice’s campaign assistant. She said she admired his concentration on community outreach.
“With Charlie, it feels more community based than about politics,” she said. “For me, it’s clear that his loyalty is to his constituency.”
On Oct. 15, Justice took to the stage at the St. Petersburg College Seminole campus to debate Mikurak.
One of his biggest achievements as a county commissioner, he said, was helping end a years-long dispute by negotiating a contract between the county’s Emergency Medical Services and 18 fire departments.
“We brought consensus to an important issue: Who arrives when you call 911,” Justice said.
The three-year contract was unanimously approved by the St. Petersburg City Council and County Commission in 2014.
If re-elected, Justice said, he wants to continue his efforts in Lealman, an unincorporated area in Pinellas County. He helped designate Lealman as a community redevelopment area, which makes it eligible for additional tax revenue to finance improvements.
Justice recently participated in a farm share project in Lealman, where he and a number of volunteers passed out fresh vegetables, beans and grains to people living in the area.
“It’s virtually a food desert in Lealman,” Justice said. “We have a lot of work to do in that area. Right now, it’s highly impoverished, and I won’t stop until we move that needle up much higher.”
Devin Rodriguez 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.