The mayor’s race is over

in Peter/Top Headlines by

All that’s left now is the crying.

St. Petersburg residents woke Saturday morning to the news, as broken wide open by Charlie Frago and Mark Puente of the Tampa Bay Times, that a state report places much of the blame for the city’s 200-million gallon sewage spill crisis on the administration of Mayor Rick Kriseman.

We’ll leave the sewer system policies to others and just deal with the politics of this report, which is simple and straightforward.

The mayor’s race is over.

Kriseman cannot and will not recover from this.

Rick Baker, who was already in a strong position to unseat Kriseman, should be able to wrap up the race in August. If not then, certainly in November.

It’s done. Finis. Kaput.

However you want to say it, it’s over.

Unless his tall frame is struck by lightning between now and Election Day, come January Baker will be sworn-in for a third term as St. Petersburg mayor.

But let’s take a step back for a moment and review how the election arrived at this point.

Many people don’t know this, but Baker really wasn’t sold on serving again as mayor until the sewage system crisis. And even after that, he had second and third thoughts about entering the race.

Deep down, Baker wanted to run for Florida governor. He and I had numerous conversations about it. He had similar conservations with other trusted advisors.

We all said the same thing: It would be very difficult for him to win a Republican primary, especially with Adam Putnam in the field. But he was unafraid. In fact, when the conversation turned to whether he should run for Congress against Charlie Crist (this was in the brief period when Crist announced that he would likely run, but Marco Rubio was still running for president, so David Jolly was still running for the U.S. Senate and not running against for the U.S. House) Baker said he would rather lose the governor’s race than win a congressional campaign.

Baker would be Don Quixote, touring the state with his guitar, talking about Florida’s history and its future. He would probably have lost, but he would have loved it.

Baker never approved of the Kriseman administration. He disagreed with the expensive staffing-up. He disagreed with the overt politicization of the Mayor’s Office. He disagreed with spending so much money on a new police headquarters. He disagreed about Kriseman’s vision for The Pier and the Rays.

Baker disagreed with a lot. But the Bill Edwards’ projects Baker was supervising were moving along swimmingly just like so much of the rest of the city. And while Baker thought he could beat Kriseman in a rematch, there probably wasn’t as large an appetitive for that as he assumed.

But then the storms came. And the City of St. Petersburg dumped 200 million gallons of sewage into Tampa Bay.

A crisis was born.

I remember the first conversation I had with Baker after the full scope of the crisis became public.

Him running for mayor was no longer about whether the rainbow flag should be raised above City Hall or which restaurant should go into the new St. Petersburg Pier.

St. Petersburg was and is in crisis. And if you believe Rick Kriseman was responsible for this crisis — as everyone who was an early supporter of Baker did — than Baker had no choice.

Cincinnati’s had to come in from the field and save Rome.

Baker had to leave the private sector and save St. Petersburg from four more years of disastrous decision-making.

Baker realized this and readied himself for the struggle ahead.

The first matter was getting himself into the best physical shape possible. He did that.

Concurrently, he needed to make sure the projects he was working on for Edwards were landing at the airport. He did that spectacularly.

And he had to get it out of his head that he could run for governor. That wasn’t easy, but he did that, too, although I know he struggled with that until the days before his formal announcement.

Was and is Baker’s victory inevitable?

It wasn’t before the sewage dumping. It wasn’t in the immediate aftermath of the dumping, either. But Kriseman’s handling of the crisis was so atrocious, that he opened the door for Baker to walk in.

It’s unfortunate that this election has come down to the sewage crisis. What, really, is the impact of the dumping? Did Tampa Bay turn green? No. Did the tourists stay away? Clearly not. Did people get sick? Not that we know of.

The sewage crisis was never one that we could see. Just like the pipes and tubes which make up the sewer system, this issue is an underground one.

But the Baker campaign succeeded making it a central part of this campaign. The issue is an indictment of Kriseman’s leadership style.

The mayor’s defense has been to attempt to spread the blame around.

And now we have the ultimate third-party judgment of who is right and who is wrong.

As Frago and Puente note, the 7-page draft report by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission does not name Kriseman or any of his staff. Yet its verdict is damning.

“The report is especially scathing in assessing the Kriseman administration’s 2015 decision to shut down the Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility — and then the mayor’s failure to reopen the plant to alleviate the sewage spills as the crisis raged,” writes Frago and Puente.

How many mailers and television spots will we see those words in?

Don’t like those, how about: (T)he Kriseman administration’s decision to carry out that plan in 2015 without upgrading capacity at the city’s other three sewage plant ‘was essentially a gamble that they would not have a wet weather event.’ “

Still unsure about who was to blame for the crisis which will cost the city millions and millions of dollars?

“The mayor’s office also claimed then those rains were a ‘historic’ and ‘unprecedented’ and a ‘100-year event.’ … ‘These claims are not based in fact or reality,’ the investigator wrote.”

Kriseman’s campaign right now must be reeling.

The polls show that Baker is not only leading, but on the cusp of winning the race outright on August 29. The polls will only get worse.

The campaign finance reports show that Baker with not only an advantage, but with Kriseman unable to any longer raise serious money. The money situation will only get exacerbated.

I almost have to wonder whether this report changes the Times mind about endorsing Kriseman. Paul Tash and Tim Nickens don’t want to back a losing candidate, so why not jump on the Baker bandwagon?

There’s still the televised debate on Tuesday. But could that event be taking place at a worse time for Kriseman? Baker will be able to hammer Kriseman with this report.

Worst of all for Kriseman is that this is the week ballots are mailed to early voters. They’ll be reading about this report just as they make their decision.

It’s over.

All that’s left is the crying.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.