By AMY DIAZ
USFSP Student Reporter
GULFPORT – To hear Sam Henderson tell it, he went to City Hall to get permission to hold a block party and wound up on the City Council.
It was 2006. He and his family had just moved to Gulfport from Ohio for his job doing environmental remediation at MacDill Air Force Base and Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.
To get to know his new neighbors, Henderson said, he decided to throw a block party. When he called the chief of police to get permission, he was directed to a City Council meeting.
He stayed for the whole meeting, Henderson said, and found himself surprised by the council’s decision-making and lack of questions.
A couple of months later, the council voted 4-1 to decline a free offer from the USF College and Marine Science for real-time water quality monitoring buoys. Henderson thought that was a big mistake.
“You know, I may not be the biggest genius in the world. But I think I can do a way better job than this,” Henderson said he told himself.
So he successfully ran for a council seat in 2009 and served two two-year terms representing Ward 4 in the northeastern quarter of the city. In 2013, he was elected mayor and has served two three-year terms.
Now he’s running for re-election.
Henderson, 47, has a bachelor’s degree from USF St. Petersburg in environmental science and policy with a minor in geography. In 2014, he earned a master’s from USFSP through the Florida Studies Program with a focus in public policy and ecology.
In the past, he has been Gulfport’s poet laureate, lead singer with his wife in a now-defunct band called The Hot Tub Club, and a part-time bartender. Now he teaches earth science and environmental science classes at St. Petersburg College
Before coming to Gulfport, Henderson said, he had always been politically active. But running for office was never something on his radar.
In Ohio, Henderson said, he was a part of a group called GYVO, which stands for “Get Your Vote On.” The group worked to register voters.
“At the time, my wife and I had a seven-piece blues jazz band, so we’d do that at our concerts and register voters during the breaks,” Henderson said.
He and his wife, Laura, whom he calls his best friend, have a 22-year-old daughter, Brenna, and two rescue dogs.
The Hendersons took in Charlie Brown, a brown pit bull, three years ago when they realized the dog’s owners had abandoned him. Henderson calls him the “campaign dog” because they got him in the middle of the last election cycle.
They rescued their other dog, Tucker, an American boxer/lab mix, seven years ago at a pet adoption event in downtown Gulfport.
For Henderson, a typical day has him walking his dogs, teaching at St. Petersburg College and responding to the issues facing Gulfport residents.
“People knock on the door, catch me at the grocery store … I’ll go to dinner with Laura and if we’re sitting outside someone might stop for 10 minutes and tell me about the pothole in their street,” Henderson said.
Henderson identified three issues most important to him and his platform.
The first is remaining a full-service city. He takes great pride in Gulfport having its own police and fire departments, marina, library, theater and casino, and he is determined to maintain that level of autonomy.
The second is infrastructure improvements, from sewer work to street and sidewalk paving.
The third is what he calls a “community for a lifetime” philosophy.
“I want to make sure that we do stuff to take care of everybody from our youngest to our oldest,” Henderson said.
That includes planning for and investing in a new senior center.
His opponent, Frank Kemnetz, a Gulfport resident for five years, is running on a platform focused on crime. Henderson disputes Kemnetz’s allegations that Gulfport “has a higher crime rate than New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.”
“The chief of police just did a report because we got the 2018 numbers, and it is the lowest crime rate is 34 years and the highest clearance rate ever,” Henderson said. “And the downward trend has been since like 2001 has been steadily declining.”
“It just seemed like he (Kemnetz) was very out of touch. And it just struck me as a fear mongering tactic.”
According to Henderson, Kemnetz’s focus on crime stems from his neighbor getting his wallet stolen – an assertion Kemnetz disputes.
Kemnetz has also accused Henderson of helping engineer two raises for himself as mayor.
Henderson acknowledges he brought up raises in 2014 and again in 2017 because the mayor and council had gone years without a raise.
“Other employees get a cost-of-living adjustment. And it’s a stipend for the council. For me, it’s $14,400, which ends up being about $13,000 take home and then (the) council is a little bit below that,” Henderson said.
“Lining my pockets with a below-poverty-level stipend is not something I’m doing. I’m driving a 2001 Taurus right now. So, if I’m a corrupt politician, I am terrible at it.”
Henderson says the first time he met Kemnetz was the day before a January candidate forum.
“There are so many opportunities to go out and meet people and participate, and I’ve never seen him in a City Council meeting ever, I’ve never seen him at a volunteer event or like a charitable cause of anything that we do,” Henderson said. “So, it’s like, how involved are you and what were you waiting for?”
Henderson had a brush with the law in what he refers to as his “wild youth.”
In 1989, when he was 17, he was charged with five misdemeanors for possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia in North Carolina, records show.
Henderson said he addressed his “party-related crimes” in a City Council meeting after someone anonymously sent copies of his arrest record to Gulfport residents.
Henderson said he learned a lot from the incident and that the people of Gulfport didn’t seem to care.
His popularity actually went up, he joked, when residents found out their mayor wasn’t exactly “squeaky clean.”