Life and politics from the Sunshine State's best city

The Worst Election Ever

in Peter/The Bay and the 'Burg by

Who would believe the fate of St. Petersburg could be changed by a car accident that occurred well beyond its city limits?

On a brisk October evening, the Lord decided to call home Patrick Brett, the 20-year-old son of Terry and Kim. The high school student body president, homecoming king, and president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, died well before his time in a car accident on his way home from a college football game.

Because it was near the time of my father’s struggle with cancer, the death of Patrick Brett weighed heavily on me. I didn’t know Patrick, but I knew and admired Terry. He had been so kind to my family when my grandparents passed. He is such a striking man, so focused and compassionate.

I knew Terry wanted to run for Mayor after Rick Baker finished his tenure. That’s why I called him earlier this year, after I had returned to town, to see if he still wanted to run. He would never say it directly, but the death of his son, like the death of my father, changed our lives’ directions.

Accordingly, the best candidate to be the next Mayor of St. Petersburg would not be running. And that’s why this city finds itself in this mess of an election.

With Terry Brett not running, this provided the opportunity for Deveron Gibbons to emerge. Both men had managed Rick Baker’s previous campaigns and were committed to helping each other if one decided to succeed their boss. The conventional wisdom held that Brett would run in 2009, with Gibbons managing his campaign and waiting in the wings for his own bid in 2013 or 2017, when Gibbons would be in his early 40s and mature enough to run a city.

With Terry Brett out of the picture, Gibbons had a clear opportunity to pick up the Baker mantle. And Gibbons has worn that mantle as best he knows how: surrounding himself with many of Baker’s supporters, like Adam Goodman and Brent Sembler (although not Terry Brett himself, who seems to want nothing to do with politics).

Deveron Gibbons’ emergence has had far-reaching effects, not the least of which is his eclipsing of Ken Welch as the second most important African-American politician (behind state Representative Darryl Rouson). Gibbons’ presence in the mayoral race presented an insurmountable obstacle to any possible Welch candidacy. They would have split the otherwise monolithic African-American vote (let’s stop pretending that the AA vote is anything but monolithic when it comes to voting for one of its own). Without 80 or 90 percent of the African-American vote, neither Gibbons, nor Welch would make it out of a primary. And while Gibbons has nothing to lose by running for Mayor of St. Petersburg, if Welch had run, he would have been making a million dollar bet with his salary from the County Commission. That wasn’t going to happen.

Accordingly, the second best candidate to be Mayor of St. Petersburg did not run. And that’s why this city finds itself in this mess of an election.

Welch’s decision not to run should have cleared the way for Rick Kriseman to seek the Mayor’s office. The popular state representative and former chair of the City Council would have had much of the Democratic Party establishment behind him. But with lesser Democrats Scott Wagman and Jamie Bennett already in the race and likely to siphon off votes and with Gibbons in the race and presenting a block on Krieseman making inroads into the African American vote, Kriseman did the math and decided not to give up his legislative seat for a wildcard bid for Mayor.

Accordingly, the third best candidate to be Mayor of St. Petersburg did not run. And that’s why this city finds itself in this mess of an election.

Terry Brett. Ken Welch. Rick Kriseman. Most voters would gladly vote for any one of those names before they cast their ballot for any of the horrible candidates still running to succeed Rick Baker.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Unfortunately, none of those names are on the ballot and so the residents and voters of St. Petersburg are left with The Worst Election Ever in this city’s modern history.

This campaign began in earnest when two of the candidates, both of whom are as white as Wonder Bread, said they wanted to be the city’s first black mayor.

We should have known then what we know now: that this race was going to be a complete Roogoodoo. It’s only gotten worse. Alex Haak smacks a reporter. Paul Congemi gets banned from KFC. Ed Helm, whose own relatives called him “unfit” and “erratic,” saying he “cannot be trusted” with the job, is running again.

Of course, there was the whole Jamie Bennett thing.

Jamie Bennett had a shot at being Mayor. With a campaign that “played in all districts” he was building a coalition broad enough for him to finish second in the primary and then be heads-up against Ford or Gibbons.

Before everyone piled on Bennett for hiring me, these same critics, like Karl Nurse or Will Michaels, were complimenting him for running the type of campaign they did not expect from him. Bennett was energetic, focused, and sharp.

But the Times was not going to let me get away with calling it the C-word. I have heard from almost a dozen Times staffers and they all told me the same thing: the story about me criticizing them made the rounds in the editorial room and the newsroom and an unspoken decision was made.

Hence, Ticketgate. If Ticketgate was such a horrible attack upon the ethics of City Hall, let me ask you this: where is the follow-up? There isn’t any because the issue was not the tickets, it was me. And so Nurse and the others were right. I was radioactive to any campaign I touched.

What a tragedy, because Bennett was the fourth best candidate for Mayor of St. Petersburg. He can’t win now. He’s no longer running for Mayor, he’s running to redeem his reputation.

So, as a city, we are left with Bill Foster, Kathleen Ford, Deveron Gibbons, and Scott Wagman.

Let’s state the obvious: Foster, Gibbons and Wagman are all praying that, not only do they make it out of the primary, but Kathleen Ford is there with them. Because anyone who runs against Kathleen Ford wins.

There isn’t a more hated politician in town. You can see Kathleen’s hate in her pursed face when she answers questions at the mayoral forums. “Be nice,” she whispers to herself, “Be nice.” And she’s done such a good job keeping her powder dry, well, other than the time she said she would never go in to black neighborhoods because she wouldn’t feel safe. She’s right. She, as the most divisive force in a city already divided along any number of fault lines, would not be safe.

If Kathleen Ford is elected, the baseball team leaves. Not immediately and not without some public rallying. But the Rays will leave town. Right about the time Las Vegas’ real estate market rebounds and that city can write a check for any damages a judge says the baseball club would do to St. Petersburg for leaving.

If the Rays leave, the St. Petersburg Times becomes the Rocky Mountain News of Tampa Bay. With no Rays coverage to drive its Sports page, and no Sports page to drive revenue, how does the newspaper stay in business? Oh sure, there will always be a St. Petersburg Times and a Poynter Institute, but the editorial board needs to ask itself now, what will a Kathleen Ford administration do to this city.

Every single nutjob who supports Kathleen, such as the remnants of the Backyard Coalition, will show up on Election Day. Hopefully, there are not enough of ’em to move her past the primary.

The candidate praying most for a Kathleen Ford win is Deveron Gibbons. As an inexperienced, sloppy kid who pimps for a legalized loan sharking operation, Gibbons does not want to run against either of the two least-common denominator white guys. That’s why you will hear Deveron’s supporters telling you how they are so afraid of Kathleen. Kathleen is the straw woman Gibbons dreams of blowing over.

Deveron Gibbons should not even be running. He has built a career out of being the lone black Republican in a political period defined by racial guilt. I remember having lunch in Tallahassee with a couple of state legislators. They instructed a client of mine to make sure they found something for Deveron so there would be “coverage with the blacks.” I don’t know which is worse: the racist thinking that goes along with that statement or the fact that Deveron has spent his life embracing the thinking.

Instead of taking what he could get and working the system from the inside, Deveron went to work for Amscot Financial, a predatory loan-sharking operation that preys upon the most vulnerable in our society. And Deveron takes their check and just smiles, “Thank you, Boss.”

But Deveron is not stupid. He knows his how to get paid. Just look at that penis-monument of a house he built to flash his cash. He’s no better than the corner brotha who blows his paycheck on a game of dice.

If I am so wrong about Deveron, and you can see what kind of wreckage Deveron has wrought at whatiswrongwithdeveron.com, then why has he run such a cynical campaign? He’s done nothing but raise money from Republican developers and out-of-town lobbyists, all the while not mentioning one word about policy, except for this gem about what to do with the Pier:

“I don’t know. I know you’re not used to hearing that, but I just don’t know. I’m on the hot seat. The Pier has been a jewel. It still has potential. It still brings — I don’t remember how many people, but a lot of people. The Columbia is a good restaurant. I just don’t know. I wish I could tell you I had a vision and a plan for the Pier, but I don’t. I’d really like to have more public input because it is a real jewel for us. I remember reading about the Million Dollar Pier, which was very popular…. I think times have changed, and we’ve kind of outgrown the pyramid scheme. But that’s not to say we can’t utilize that facility and have different things there.”

Shuck and jive, Deveron, shuck and jive.

This leaves us with the two least-common-denominator white guys, Scott Wagman and Bill Foster. The two candidates who sought to be the city’s first black Mayor. I don’t know why I dislike Scott Wagman. I believe part of it is envy. Envious of his campaign team, who wins one or two elections and is slurped on by the local media. I remember flipping all of the legislative seats in 1998 and 2000 and I don’t remember the Times beating a path to my door for a quote. I guess because it was Frank Farkas, instead of Kevin Beckner, it doesn’t count. So, yes, I am envious.

But my envy turns to hate when I read about Wagman’s noblesse oblige. His campaign motto, “Work hard…Give back…Make a difference” is noblesse oblige for the 21st century. And no one’s called him on it. Then again, who’s going to call him out? He donated enough money to the NAACP to buy a few endorsements from them, he parked a million dollars in Sunken Gardens to get Bill Heller’s support, he’s paid $150K to Charlie Justice’s campaign consultants so that he’d get that senator’s support. No one is more popular than a rich Democrat, especially in economic times like this.

I agree with Wagman on most of the philosophical issues, like gay marriage. But I wholeheartedly disagree with Mr. Houghton-Wagman on the municipal issues. I don’t want the Rays leaving St. Petersburg. I don’t want the Pier to be bulldozed. I don’t want to end spending for new parks.

I don’t want to see another one of Wagman’s little videos. I don’t want to hear about “sign monsters.” I don’t think selling twenty million dollars worth of paint prepares someone to lead a city. I don’t want Scott Wagman’s condescension emanating from City Hall.

That leaves us with one candidate…the candidate I will be voting for this year: Bill Foster.

Bill Foster is the safest choice in these unsafe times. If Kathleen Ford is elected, there will be another riot. If Deveron Gibbons is elected, St. Petersburg will be the Detroit of Florida. If Scott Wagman is elected, well, we don’t know enough about Wagman yet to say.

Bill Foster is the devil we know. I disagree with Bill Foster’s rightwing worldview, but I think he would do right for our city. He is a good person with a wonderful family, a fact that reflects well on Foster. Sure, he can be clunky at times. He can be holier-than-thou most of the time, but the city will be safe in his hands.

Instead of raising money from developers and lobbyists, Foster first wrote a 15-page plan about how he would lead the city. I don’t think anyone has read the Foster Formula other than me and Cristina Silva, but if you have, you know that there is some serious thought in it. Particularly on public safety, Foster has the most sensible approach to leading St. Petersburg.

Foster also represents the best of St. Petersburg. He has some of that Northeast viewpoint that the rest of the city despises, but, deep-down, respects. He’s a booster, a cheerleader for the city, the way Rick Baker is. St. Petersburg First. That kind of thinking is a big difference between Foster and the more regional Wagman.

Bill Foster has a lot of work to do, especially on gay rights. His opposition to the Human Rights ordinance still sticks in my craw and his views on gay rights are a lot for me to overcome. But I think Foster is, um, evolving, in his viewpoints. I think he realizes he will have to keep his religion far away from City Hall.

If he does that, I think St. Petersburg will continue to prosper. I view Foster as the natural heir to Dave Fischer and Rick Baker, two mayors who have served St. Petersburg well.

And while I will be voting for Foster, if I had my druthers I’d be voting for Terry Brett or Ken Welch or, as Richard Pryor suggested in Brewster’s Millions: None of the Above.

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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.

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