This was an unwise marriage, the too-easygoing City Council member running for mayor of St. Petersburg and the wild-card political consultant. Now it’s an ugly divorce.
After James Bennett’s campaign got caught handing out tickets to the city’s suite at Tropicana Field for political purposes, Bennett and adviser Peter Schorsch parted ways, blaming each other.
In turn, Schorsch went public over the weekend with a laundry list of dirty campaign tricks and violations that he says Bennett knew about. Bennett says he didn’t, at least, not most of it.
I don’t believe Bennett hired Schorsch with the deliberate plan of running a dirty campaign.
But he did hire him, characteristically granting Schorsch another chance despite a rocky past. And he didn’t keep him on a short leash, either — which precisely illustrates the main question about Bennett as a City Council member and would-be mayor.
History is instructive. How much better it would have been, over these last years, if Bennett had said something on the front end like:
“No, Mr. Mayor, as chairman of the City Council, I think it would be wrong to have secret, one-on-one briefings between your staff and the council for your latest secret deal, and then to add a last-minute oral item to my consent agenda to hide it entirely from the public.”
Or: “No, Mr. Mayor and Mr. Sternberg, the fact that you had a secret plan for a baseball stadium for seven months does not mean the City Council is now going to roll over and ram through anything you want.” (Instead, Bennett’s first vote in December 2007 was to plunge ahead, declaring the council had no choice but to obey “the time frame the Rays gave us.”)
He is a genial, go-along fellow who lavishes praise upon “our” staff instead of overseeing it as a separate branch of government. In the oversight arena he could be one tick more Kathleen Ford (another candidate and a critic of city government) and one tick less Jim Carrey in Yes Man.
So this is consistent. He hired Schorsch on the same terms of benign neglect, and Schorsch (according to Schorsch) played tricks on or smeared the other candidates, and even hired extras to make the photos look better at Bennett campaign events. (This last one at least seems true, as Bennett admits he failed to report it on his campaign-finance form — a serious offense for a silly reason.)
So, is Bennett finished?
In a big-city race he would be. The other candidates would never let it go.
But this is St. Petersburg and this is May. Even the mail-in ballots don’t go out until July, and the primary is in September. Besides, in a nine-way race, a few thousand votes get you in the runoff.
If I’m Bennett, here is my plan: (1) Shut up, don’t whine and don’t play the victim. (2) Run the most positive, professional and energetic campaign possible. (3) Create just a tad of distance between myself and City Hall. (4) No screw-ups, because anything new re-opens the past.
Even all that might not work. But it would be better.