There are now less than eight weeks left before the August primary, at which time one of the “Big 3” St. Pete mayoral candidates — Bill Foster, Rick Kriseman and Kathleen Ford — will be eliminated from further consideration to lead the city for the next four years.
According to the latest polls, Foster is in third place, trailing Kriseman by a few percentage points — which means there’s a stunning possibility that the incumbent might not be on the November ballot for re-election.
“The majority does not believe that Foster deserves a second term,” says Kriseman campaign manager Cesar Fernandez. “We didn’t expect early on to be running against the least popular strong mayor in recent history.”
Depending on your perspective, things in St. Petersburg have never been better. They certainly sounded that way last week in the first mayoral debate of the summer, as Foster rolled out an impressive litany of events that have occurred during his three-and-a-half-year tenure, citing some $500 million in construction projects going on downtown (the most since the middle of the Rick Baker era), the success of the Warehouse Arts District, and St. Pete’s ranking by AmericanStyle magazine as the #1 mid-sized U.S. city for the arts three years in a row.
Foster calls it “Renaissance 2.0.” But there are some folks who say he doesn’t deserve to take a victory lap.
That would include some members of the black community, who have had rocky relations with the mayor ever since he canned Goliath Davis in 2011. Davis had been the point man for economic development in Midtown. Foster said he would assume that role himself, but for over a year there has been grumbling that he’s dropped the ball.
So there was a palpable buzz in the audience last week when Davis rose to wait in line to ask questions of the candidates at the forum. He followed former NAACP head Ray Tampa, who blasted a list of “Foster facts” that he alleged were flat out misstatements.
“Did you find the first tenant for the Manhattan Casino?” Tampa questioned while wearing his Ford for Mayor T-shirt. “Did you do the improvements for Childs Park?”
Foster defended himself, responding, “Did I find Sylvia’s of Harlem? No. But when they came into my office, there are things that have to go through the mayor’s office to get accomplished.”
Davis then repeated Tampa’s line of attack, alleging that the mayor was boasting about a series of accomplishments he had little to do with.
Again Foster responded strongly by going through actions that Davis had called attention to, and ones that he hadn’t, before concluding, “So yeah, there’s a lot of things that I do in that chair, that you have no idea …”
Two months ago Davis told the Tampa Bay Times that Kathleen Ford was a viable candidate, and though he said he wasn’t ready to endorse her just yet, his stance on the contest (which he reiterated to CL) is Anybody But Foster.
That story seems to have helped spur significant black support for Ford in Midtown, a crucial demographic that chose Foster over Ford in the 2009 contest.
That support, along with her out-front role in opposing the destruction of the Pier, has catapulted her to a fragile lead in the polls.
But her newfound popularity in African-American circles has surprised some observers, including South St. Pete resident Lorraine Brown. She says she’s seen a flurry of Ford signs in Midtown, but based on Ford’s previously documented troubles with Davis, she’s not sure why.
“What is different about you now?” Brown inquired of Ford. “Why should I vote for you?”
Ford replied simply that she was “thrilled with the support,” that she’s been “in the trenches,” that she’s “committed” and that “folks know what she’s going to do.”
Afterward, Brown told CL that Ford hadn’t answered her question. “What have you done to make these people change?” she asked again. She said she believed that the black community has now turned against Foster, “for whatever reason.”
When asked if many are following Davis’ quasi-endorsement, Brown replied that would be unfortunate. “He don’t speak for me and I don’t speak for him. People need to learn the issues.”
The confusion makes sense. Going back to her tenure on City Council, Ford was always notably cool toward Davis, the city’s former police chief. And when she referred to him as “H.N.I.C.” in a radio interview in 2009, appropriating the derisive term which blacks have used to describe leaders who’ve gained acceptance by white America, well, Brown hasn’t forgotten that.
Taking the progressive path is former City Councilman and state representative Rick Kriseman, who has admitted that Ford’s somewhat late entry into the race complicated his anti-incumbent strategy initially.
His stance is that the city could do better than the current leadership. And he’s pounding Foster on dropping the ball when it comes to neighborhood involvement. “Neighborhoods are what made St. Pete special, it’s what made us strong,” he said at last week’s forum. “And we’ve gotten away from that.” He also accused Foster of being deaf to the citizenry. “Being mayor is about listening, learning and leading.”
Kriseman’s team say they’re pleased with where their guy is positioned in recent polls, running against two candidates who have run for mayor before and whose name recognition might be higher than that of the former state representative.
The candidates were also asked about their stances on gay marriage, weed, universal recycling and EMS, but not that much time was focused on the Pier, an issue that councilman Charlie Gerdes admits is “sucking the air out of things that need to be recognized and need to get attention.”
Some analysts say that Ford’s strong support for preserving the original inverted pyramid design will get her through the primary and gives her a great opportunity to win the mayor’s office in her third try.
But what about the other issues? CL contacted her recently to ask for a sit-down interview. We didn’t hear back. When we asked for that same interview in person last week, the 55-year-old attorney smiled, and moved along.
And why not? With her slight lead going into the summer months, her anti-Pier stance could be enough to get her into the general election in November.
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