Ever since Rick Baker entered the mayoral race in St. Petersburg in May, incumbent Rick Kriseman has been on the defensive – about sewage, the Manhattan Casino, the Pier, and seemingly everything else under the sunshine.
Those issues will undoubtedly reverberate as the mayoral race continues into the fall, but Kriseman was completely on offense when he took to the state at the State Theater Tuesday night when a runoff was guaranteed (but before he knew he had collected 69 more votes than his arch rival).
Arriving to the backbeat of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” the 55-year-old Democrat began his speech by thanking his family, his campaign team and, oh yeah, Barack Obama, who delivered a rare endorsement on Friday that some observers said might have been too late in the campaign cycle.
“I know it hasn’t been easy. Rick Baker’s special interests friends have made sure of that,” Kriseman said, noting the contributors to Baker’s PAC and direct campaign coffers that raised more than a million dollars before Tuesday’s election.
Kriseman’s main campaign theme has been that he needs to be re-elected to keep moving the city forward, that a vote for Baker is a vote to go backwards. He doubled down on that argument during his speech at the State Theatre.
“If Rick Baker is elected mayor, he will turn the clock back on St. Petersburg,” Kriseman said. “He will take us back to a time of backroom deals. To a time when the rainbow flag and the flag celebrating black history month didn’t fly proudly over City Hall. To a time when crime was up and opportunity was down. Those days were good for Rick Baker. But they weren’t good for our city.”
Baker has led in all polls conducted since he entered the contest this past spring. While those were mostly conducted by St. Pete Polls, a Florida Democratic Party internal poll from early August had Kriseman down to Baker by 11 points.
Expectations were measured going into Tuesday night. And while the first returns from voting by mail had Baker up over the 50 percent magic mark that was considered possible to end the whole thing on Tuesday, Kriseman came in at a surprising 46 percent, much higher than he had ever polled throughout the primary campaign.
Those margins continued to shrink as more precincts came in, making it inevitable that there would be a runoff. But the pre-primary speculation was that it might be a drag if Baker had won by a considerable amount but still finished shy of 50 percent. But now it is Kriseman who has the wind to his back ever so slightly.
Kriseman has talked often during the campaign about the reduced crime rates under his tenure, led by his handpicked chief of police, Tony Holloway. While the Tampa Bay Times editorial page has scolded him for changing “the subject” from the issue of sewage, it’s obviously an issue he will continue to hammer home, and did on Tuesday, blasting Baker for not saying if he would retain Holloway if he were to be elected in November. “And that’s probably because he’ll fire the chief,” Kriseman said.
Kriseman has tried to tie Baker to Donald Trump, a narrative that Baker has wanted to no part of. Expect that to continue, as Kriseman chastised him because “he won’t tell us anything.”
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch praised Kriseman’s campaign strategy, using the venerable Tip O’Neill line that “All politics is local.”
“You can’t separate alliances and associations at the federal and state level, who are making decisions that impact our lives,” Welch said, referring to “climate deniers” in Tallahassee and Washington D.C. while the nation’s fourth largest city is virtually underwater due to Hurricane Harvey’s destructive path.
“The voters are smart. They know that those things impact us locally,” Welch added.
Although Baker won the early vote, Kriseman won big on Election Day.
“I attribute it to the hard work that the grassroots did,” said Councilman Charlie Gerdes. “If you were paying attention on social media the last three days, they were just working their butts off to get the vote out. So it’s a tribute to all those volunteers.”
Although the results had to be stunning for Baker, he told reporters earlier in the day he was well prepared to campaign for two more months.
“We have our fundraiser set for September, we have a campaign plan ready for September and October, we are fully ready to engage in a campaign for another 2 months if we need to,” he said.
In his speech at the Staybridge Suites Hotel, an intense Baker blasted Kriseman on the sewage issue.
“The oceans, the waters around our city, are some of the most precious things that we have,” he said, “and we cannot sit back and watch them be contaminated because of a mayor who cares more about politics, than he cares about the future of this city. I will not stand for it!”
Meanwhile, the four other mayoral candidates failed to do much, with only Jesse Nevel getting more than one percent of the vote (he ended up with 1.67%).
The run-off election is November 7.