To a cheering crowd of supporters Friday night, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman expressed what will be undoubtedly the predominant theme of his re-election campaign this summer.
Kriseman said the election between himself and former Mayor Rick Baker is a simple choice: whether citizens want to keep moving forward or go back in time.
“It’s about us deciding as a community who we want to be,” the mayor told more than a hundred people who crammed into a house on North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd and 16th Ave. that will serve as his campaign headquarters. “What kind of city do we want to be?”
“You hear me talk about our vision of being a city of opportunity, where the sun shines on all who live, work and play (here),” he continued. “That’s the kind of community we want to be, and that’s what we’re going to be deciding in this election.”
This was perhaps Kriseman’s biggest engagement with the public since he formally declared his candidacy for re-election at Three Birds Tavern four months ago.
Even back then, rumors were getting serious that the popular, twice-elected Baker was thinking of returning to city politics, after several years in the private sector working for entrepreneur Bill Edwards.
Since he stepped down from office at the beginning of 2010, Baker flirted with running for several political offices, but never ultimately pulled the trigger on any. It led to some skepticism about whether he would even come back to challenge Kriseman.
Since entering the race May 9, he’s made an impression, starting with a fiery public takedown of Kriseman at his lengthy campaign kickoff.
After that, there have been a few fundraisers, but none bigger than Tuesday night at the Morean Arts Center for Clay, where Baker premiered a new television ad and offered supporters a copy of his 2011 opus, “The Seamless City” (apparently there were plenty of copies still sitting in boxes somewhere).
In a brief five-minute address, Kriseman touched on one of the most vulnerable parts of his record — the issues with sewage spills in 2015 and 2016 and his administration’s ability to level with the public about them. In his address, he touched upon the incident, but segued to referring to the storm’s intensity and who can best contend with acknowledging the realities of climate change.
“We experienced over an 18-month time rains that we hadn’t ever seen before, and I’m not afraid to talk about climate change and sea level rising,” he said, before getting in a dig at Baker for inheriting a sewage system that wasn’t fully funded.
“For too long though we’ve invested in our system, we haven’t invested enough because if we had, we wouldn’t be dealing with those issues today. but we’re going to fix it,” Kriseman declared. “We are committed to investing $305 million over the next five years and then beyond.”
Opening up for Kriseman at the event were members of St. Petersburg’s Democratic all-star team: City Council Chair Darden Rice, County Commissioner Ken Welch and Congressman Charlie Crist, who twice Kriseman referred to as “Governor Crist” (because it’s something that people call Crist).
Segueing from sewage to his credentials as an environmentalist, Kriseman became nostalgic over a bonding moment with Crist in 2010.
The mayor reminisced about the time when he, along with two other state Democrats, called for a special session to propose a Constitutional Amendment on the ballot to prohibit drilling for oil or natural gas within state waters.
Crist was all for it, but the Legislature didn’t agree.
The themes pounded into the crowd’s head: Moving forward as a city with a leader who is inclusive.
Welch began by saying about the current environment in Tallahassee and Washington D.C.: “Two words come to mind — regression and progress.”
You can guess who represents who in Team Kriseman’s eyes.
Welch said that in all his time in office (since 2000), city-county relations have never been better; Kriseman deserved a big share of the credit for helping to establish that level of cooperation.
Rice talked up some of the policies that have been achieved under the Kriseman administration: increased minimum wage for city workers, establishing a parental leave policy, “banning the box” on job applications,
There was no mention of Baker during the event, except for one passing comment by Rice, while praising Kriseman as an inclusive mayor: “That wasn’t the message from the other guy who announced his re-election campaign a few weeks ago.”
Although one poll shows Kriseman down by double-digits to Baker, attendees are convinced Kriseman will come out on top this year.
“The city of St Petersburg has changed a lot since Mayor Baker was in office. so the DNA in our city has become much more forward thinking and much more progressive, and that bodes well for a Kriseman re-election,” said Mark Ferrulo, the executive director of Progress Florida, a liberal activist organization.
He acknowledges, though, that the race will be extremely competitive.
Some 2013 Kriseman voters who say they’ll vote for Baker this time around say they’ve been “disappointed” by the Democrat incumbent. That includes some of the same progressive base that Kriseman believes is the key to his re-election strategy.
City Councilman Charlie Gerdes doesn’t understand that sentiment against Baker, a Republican who chides Kriseman for making the race partisan.
“If they voted for Rick they should have understood that Rick was a progressive and that the vision and values were going to change,” Gerdes said, “and to the extent that people are disappointed that things haven’t happened fast enough, I get that.”
“But if you’re going to vote for a progressive and you’re disappointed, and you go to Rick Baker, that’s inexplicable to me,” Gerdes added, shaking his head.
“I just don’t get that.”
Photo courtesy of Kim DeFalco.