In one week, St. Petersburg residents will know whether Rick Baker is returning to City Hall for a third term as mayor or if incumbent Rick Kriseman lives to fight another day.
Whether Baker wins the August 29 primary outright is really the only drama left to unfold in what has turned out to be, at least compared to the previous two mayoral races, an anticlimactic affair.
In 2009, a field of ten candidates, most of whom had a legitimate claim to the Green Bench (in St. Pete, there is no Iron Throne, rather a mythical Green Bench to sit upon), sought to replace Baker after his first two terms in office. Early polling in that race showed that Jamie Bennett, Kathleen Ford, Deveron Gibbons, Karl Nurse, Larry Williams, and eventual winner Bill Foster were all bunched together, like five or six college football teams, each with one loss on their record, hoping to play for the national championship. This site even predicted that Gibbons would make the runoff, although it was Ford who joined Foster for that race.
Four years later, Foster was a vulnerable incumbent, prompting Ford and Kriseman to challenge him. For much of that campaign, the city’s establishment was on edge because it appeared Ford might finally realize her dream of becoming the city’s mayor. Only after someone donned a chicken suit to antagonize Ford and the city’s mostly Republican business community grudgingly agreed to support Kriseman was Ford stopped at the gates.
Still, in 2009 and 2013:
There were colorful also-ran candidates, like Ed Helm.
There were a slew of wide-open candidate forums (some say too many).
There were genuine racial tensions (Ford went on a radio show to describe former police chief Goliath Davis as the H.N.I.C. of the city).
There were micro-scandals (Bennett’s implosion, Gibbons’ dodges with the law).
There were fresh-on-the-scene, but interesting political operatives, such as Cesar Fernandez and Mitch Kates.
There was excitement!
Not this year. Not this election.
St. Petersburg voters are so familiar — perhaps too familiar — with Baker and Kriseman that, as political consultant Barry Edwards observes, “Everyone knew who they were voting for before the race began.”
Baker and Kriseman, who could not be more divergent in their political philosophies, have, each in their own ways, dominated city politics for the past two decades. Neither are bullies, but they’ve been the two biggest kids on the block for some time. So, of course, they would have to eventually face each other.
But what is the top issue in the race? The city’s sewage system. As important as a well-functioning sewer system is to a city, you’d be hard-pressed to find an issue less exciting than talking about sewers. The candidates are talking about something they literally can’t see: underground pipes and such … zzz … I’m sorry, I dozed off there for a moment thinking about the sewage system “crisis.”
The 2017 mayoral race is a contest between two completely familiar candidates, both of whom are trying to one-up the other about an issue no one can really feel or touch.
It almost makes one miss Kathleen Ford.
To put the matter in handicapping terms, the question is whether the New England Patriots will win the Super Bowl by eight points or more. We know the Patriots will win the game. We’re fairly certain that the game is not going to come down to a last-second field goal. But can Tom Brady and Co. cover the spread?
That’s how Vegas works. The sharps don’t pick winners and losers. They pick numbers. What they want is half of the bettors to stand on one side, while the other half stands on the other. They make their money collecting the vigorish.
Half of the people who follow St. Pete politics close enough that they’re opinion matters think Baker will win the race outright in August. The other half thinks Baker will fall just short.
Darden Rice, a member of the City Council who backs Kriseman, says that Kriseman’s decision to inject national politics into the nonpartisan mayoral race may be what propels the race to November.
“Kriseman’s strategy to make part of the race about partisan politics and Democrat principles versus Republican ones is finally paying dividends,” Rice said a day after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Therein lies part of the trouble for Baker, who has eschewed talking about national issues on the local campaign trail. Increasingly, St. Pete voters want to know where the former mayor stands on Donald Trump. Did he vote for him? Will he condemn the president’s post-Charlottesville statements on race and Confederate monuments? Etc., etc.
Baker is having no part of it, which is giving some the impression that in the primary, he’s trying to run out the clock.
Except now, as the Tampa Bay Times’ Charlie Frago reports, Baker is downplaying expectations about the primary.
“I think it’s going to tighten up,” Baker said.
One prominent civic leader, Craig Sher, predicted that if Kriseman does survive the primary, he will come from behind to win the election in November.
Sher would not come out and say it, but the toxic political environment will only continue to hurt Baker, as the Republican brand — no matter how different it is here in Pinellas — suffers under Trump. Baker can complain all he wants, as he did on Tuesday night, that Kriseman has made the race too much about national politics, but that’s like a losing boxer complaining that the only reason why he lost a fight is that the other guy was stronger, faster, and taller.
Also dogging Baker now is his atrocious statement that, if he wins another term in City Hall, he will not recuse himself from negotiating with his current boss, developer and philanthropist Bill Edwards.
More than one prominent burger has whispered Baker’s blinders on this issue reminds them of another politician … Donald Trump.