When polls close at 7 p.m. in St. Petersburg’s mayoral primary, the question is not who received the most votes, but whether former mayor Rick Baker reached the fifty percent-plus-one vote threshold to win the race outright.
From the day Baker officially entered the race, he has been an aggressive challenger. On the steps of City Hall, Baker gave a fiery speech about the failures of the Rick Kriseman administration, accusing the current mayor of dividing the city.
The mayor and his allies say he has accomplished a lot in his first term, and if voters want that momentum to continue, they need to re-elect him for another four years.
What has been Kriseman’s Achilles’ heel throughout the campaign was the city’s sewage crisis, which reached its nadir a year ago when 200 million gallons of sewage was dumped into local waterways. It’s “the issue” of the mayoral campaign, as many a Tampa Bay Times editorial proclaimed; if that’s the case, it may prove fatal for the incumbent.
If Kriseman falls short Tuesday, it will be a stunning reversal from four years ago, when his progressive record and agenda seemed to find commonality with this Democratic-leaning city. It helped him score a 12-point victory over incumbent Bill Foster.
That was then, as former allies — former City Councilwoman Leslie Curran and state Representative Wengay Newton — like to say. Both have expressed disappointment with Kriseman’s time in office; they are now supporting Baker.
Kriseman has gone to considerable lengths to tell voters he shares their values and Baker does not. Baker is a Republican who has never acknowledged voting for Donald Trump in last year’s presidential campaign.
For wearing progressivism on his sleeve, Kriseman was rewarded with an endorsement from former President Barack Obama.
St. Petersburg mayoral elections are always fascinating because, historically, the black community helps choose the eventual winner. This is where (in traditional party politics) Kriseman could project that the majority of those precincts would favor him, tilting the overall electorate in his favor.
But that’s where Baker’s strong relationship with many in Midtown (a term he coined) has proved resilient.
What distinguished him from most of the other mayors is that he made these contacts with the African-American community early, and he kept those contacts throughout those eight years as mayor, says Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida.
“It wasn’t a case of him just dropping into the black community three months before the election and appearing at black churches,” Paulson writes. “He was a constant presence, and his mentoring in education specifically, I think struck a chord within the black community.”
Paulson also notes — as has Baker on the campaign trail — that education was never a function of the mayor’s responsibilities in St. Petersburg, but was always the province of the school board. But from his first year in office, Baker began a mentoring program and went on from there, putting in more resources from City Hall than ever before. Kriseman followed up with his own series of programs, but doesn’t flaunt those programs as freely as Baker did on the stump.
In 2013, the plight of the St. Pete Pier and the Tampa Bay Rays were considered “sexy” issues, and Kriseman acted on them. He negotiated a deal allowing the franchise to hold formal discussions with Hillsborough County officials, with no news on that likely until after baseball season.
The Pier, however, is a little more problematic. Construction began two months ago on the Pier and pier head — two years later than Kriseman predicted his election in 2014. Baker blasted Kriseman for the delays as well as the cost overruns in getting the new pier built.
Six candidates are on the mayoral primary ballot in addition to Kriseman and Baker: Uhuru-affiliated Jesse Nevel, longtime community activist Theresa “Mama T” Lassiter, Anthony Cates III and the idiosyncratic Paul Congemi.
Congemi, a perennial gadfly, made national news with a bizarre rant against Nevel during a mayoral forum where he called Uhuru members to “go back to Africa.”
The only other St. Petersburg race Tuesday night is for City Council District 6, where voters in that district only will whittle down the eight-candidate field to two to reach the general election in November.