Although he’d been in public office for over a decade before stepping down from the state legislature last year, Rick Kriseman is still introducing himself to St. Petersburg voters. Literally. That’s in part because it’s been a full decade since his name was on a citywide ballot; the district he represented from 2006-2012 included only the city’s west side and not the Midtown, Downtown or Northeast areas.
So, on a recent Saturday morning, the former city councilmember and state representative stumped in Midtown with campaign manager Cesar Fernandez, visiting small business owners and reminding them of the Aug. 27 primary.
Kriseman likes to break the ice by asking what the city could do to make voters’ businesses better. At Badcock & More Home Furniture, store manager Oral Maitland answers that he doesn’t like the fact that the city won’t allow him to place standing A-frame signs in front of his establishment. He also tells Kriseman he’s the first politician to ever visit him.
Next up is Mair’s Grocery. Fernandez hands proprietor Wilbur Miller a campaign pamphlet featuring a photo of Kriseman with a beaming President Obama.
“We could do with another Rick,” Miller says, referring to former Mayor Rick Baker, who made economic development of Midtown a priority. Miller isn’t ready to commit yet, but says with emphasis, “I’m sure not going to vote for the mayor,” meaning incumbent Bill Foster. When asked what his specific issues are, Miller says there’s no particular problem; he just feels Baker did a better job. “Midtown doesn’t stop at the [Trop]. It goes all the way down here.”
But not everybody is excited to see a white politician stumping for votes on this casual Saturday morning. At a barbershop at 23rd and MLK, Kriseman walks in unannounced, and is greeted with indifference by the 10 or so customers watching MTV on a 13-inch screen topped by an Obama baseball cap. But he’s determined to spark some dialogue, and finally finds a 20-something in a barber chair who appears open to his shtick. When asked about his plan for reducing crime, Kriseman speaks for a few minutes on bringing back community policing, and talks about how “internal problems” in the department need to be addressed by cultural and tolerance training.
“It sounds good. It seems sincere,” the young man says, but Kriseman jumps in to acknowledge that politicians have to do more than talk.
“It’s easy to talk,” says the candidate. “It’s gotta be backed up, though. If it doesn’t get backed up, then you shouldn’t keep the job. And I know this mayor talked a good talk four years ago, but he hasn’t backed it up.”
There’s no question that of all the statements he’s made through the years, Foster’s comment that he wanted to become St. Pete’s first black mayor refuses to die, particularly in Midtown.
But while Kriseman didn’t benefit directly from that disaffection with Foster, he’s starting to make significant inroads. Although last month a Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/WUSF poll gave him just 8 percent of the black vote, the tide appears to be quickly turning. In a survey released by St. Pete Polls on Tuesday, Kriseman had 28 percent of that demographic, with Ford at 24 percent and Foster at 20 percent.
“What you saw initially was, ‘We don’t want to vote for the mayor, and the only one we know running is Kathleen’,” Kriseman says. But he says the more he gets out in the community, “They’re coming to me.”
That was definitely the case last week at a provocative debate at the Bethel Community Baptist Church on 54th Avenue S. Kriseman seemed to hit the right notes throughout the evening with the racially mixed crowd, as the candidates answered questions about racial profiling, institutional racism and “poverty pimps.” Result? He dominated the post-debate straw poll, taking 65 percent of the vote total of 116 participants.
And now, according to Tuesday’s St. Pete Polls survey, Kriseman and Foster are neck and neck in the primary, with Ford trailing by double digits.
Although Ford didn’t enter the race until April, she surged in early polls, buoyed by her high-profile demands for a vote on the Pier. Much was made of her alleged support from the black community, traced in part to former police chief Goliath Davis’ comment that she had “matured greatly as a politician.”
But those halcyon days seem far away now. Her early lead began to fade after her avoidance of early debates drew significant media attention, thanks to somebody (whose identity was never revealed) donning a chicken suit at campaign forums.
Unforced errors have also been a problem, as they were in her race against Foster in 2009. There was the Krispy Kreme moment, for instance. Near the conclusion of an hour-long debate broadcast live on Bay News 9, she asked Kriseman what he and Foster had learned from an incident years ago involving distribution of a Krispy Kreme calendar featuring obese women that landed the two politicians in sensitivity training.
Kriseman appeared dumbfounded at the question, and wondered why she would bring it up.
Then there was last week’s potato salad incident. During the Bethel Church debate, activist “Momma Tee” Lassiter asked Ford what she had done specifically for Midtown.
“Momma T,” Ford responded, “you remember when we were fixing up that potato salad in Campbell Park for your festival? We had a lot of fun there. We had our sleeves rolled up … Wasn’t that fun?”
Some members of the audience gasped.
One of her most prominent supporters is Councilman Wengay Newton, who says unlike Kriseman, she’s a known quantity in the community.
“Kathleen Ford has been there from day one, even after losing by 25,000 votes (officially 24,228) in the last election. She didn’t go away. She didn’t disappear. No one has to ask who she is, where she came from, you know? She didn’t have PACs sending mailers to tell people who she is.”
But name recognition alone might not be enough.
Meanwhile, Mayor Foster has presented himself as the proud incumbent who has successfully led the city through the worst recession of our lifetimes. He often dismisses his challengers as pretenders who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about on issues like community policing.
“This is no time for on-the-job training,” he says at every candidate forum, often dismissing criticism by saying “hindsight’s 20/20.”
He’s also showing adaptability to changing circumstances (or, as his opponents charge, changing his positions to win election).
He took the Rays off the table as a campaign issue by announcing earlier this month that he will allow Rays owner Stuart Sternberg to talk with officials in Hillsborough County, a move the Tampa Tribune’s editorial page compared favorably with his previous “rigid refusal.”
And, staring at polls that show the Lens may die in next week’s referendum, he created the 828 Alliance, which is slated to give him a report on what to do if the contract with Michael Maltzan Architecture is terminated.
He also announced the formation of St. Pete Promise earlier this month, a program that will focus on recruiting mentors, raising funds for college scholarships, advocating for more legislative support for schools and teachers, and building a better relationship with the school district.
Kriseman has joked that he wishes every year was an election year, because of the mayor’s energy on these pressing issues.
He hopes to make that argument one-on-one after next week.
Three races for City Council are being contested next Tuesday. As with the mayoral contest, if no candidate in these contests gets over 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will compete in the general election on November 5.
District 4 (Crescent Lake, Euclid Heights, Euclid-St. Paul and Meadowlawn)
Darden Rice is the dream progressive candidate, and her visibility in public affairs over the past decade is paying dividends in endorsements. A former member of the Sierra Club, past president of the League of Women Voters, spokeswoman for a group advocating for healthcare reform, and current chair of the PSTA legislative committee, Rice is clearly the favorite of the St. Pete political establishment. As such, she has been doubled-teamed by her two most serious opponents in recent debates, Crescent Lakes Neighborhood Association President Carolyn Fries and Tea Party adherent David McKalip.
Rice has performed smoothly in her debate performances — perhaps too smoothly at times. At a Tiger Bay forum last week, she peppered her comments with political-insider buzzwords like “holistic” that sound impressive but often don’t amount to much.
More importantly, Rice is the only candidate in the race who supports the PSTA referendum in 2014 for Pinellas voters that will ask them to raise their taxes to begin construction of a light-rail system from St. Pete to Clearwater.
McKalip has been dropping rhetorical bombs throughout the campaign, at times leaving Rice smiling in astonishment as he interjects loaded non sequiturs like, “While she was working with the Sierra Club to take out cheap, incandescent light bulbs and replace them with toxic CFL’s (Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs), I was working after 9/11 with dozens of committees to prepare this city for domestic terrorism.”
And it was McKalip who called his critics “political terrorists” last week after his campaign manager, Nick Finzer, was slammed for a comment he made on WTSP-Channel 10’s website following an incident with an Obama-masked clown at the Missouri State Fair. “I think I’d like to see Obama run down by a bull,” Finzer said. “Except that would make Biden President.”
McKalip is hardly the only Tea Party candidate whose campaign has demonized Obama, but he has attracted extra scrutiny because of the email he infamously forwarded in 2009 that portrayed the president as a witch doctor in a loin cloth and headdress with bones in his nose. He apologized immediately for the email back then, and did so again last week at a Tiger Bay forum, but not before once again invoking the “political terrorist” line.
Fries has campaigned as a sensible, pro-neighborhood candidate, frequently invoking former Mayor Rick Baker and pledging to be a fiscal conservative, just not as strident as McKalip. She’s also talked about trying to heal a divided city. A native of Indiana, Fries took the high road early on in the campaign, deciding not to make an issue of residency questions that hamstrung Rice and McKalip. “I didn’t want to win that way,” she told the Tribune last month.
District 6 (Midtown, Old Southeast)
Council Chair Karl Nurse is hoping for another four years, and he’s meeting minimal resistance. Activist Sharon Russ and small businessman Trevor Mallory are his challengers. Russ has been relatively absent on the campaign trail. Mallory, a former pitcher in the Toronto Blue Jays system, is manager of Onyx, the downtown club formerly known as Scene that was plagued by charges of underage drinking and other incidents. He says he’d like to see more community policing and said the city should hire more black police officers.
District 8 (Historic Kenwood, North Kenwood, Disston Heights, Central Oak Park)
Amy Foster has received most of the major endorsements in the race and at 35 is the youngest candidate on the ballot. A former executive with the Girl Scouts of West Central Florida, she currently works for a company seeking to increase gender parity in STEM education.
Steve Galvin, 55, owner of a music and sound studio, is also an attractive candidate. He was impressing voters until the Tampa Bay Times’ Anna Phillips reported that he had lied on a campaign questionnaire regarding whether he had ever had children or been sued.
The truth was that he’d had what he calls a one-night stand with a woman in 2004, but has been denied contact with that child ever since.
A disqualifying event? In the age of Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner, it would hardly seem so.
But the fallout from that revelation has been hard to ignore. Galvin’s campaign manager, Johnny Bardine, quit less than 24 hours after the story went online. Then Galvin’s wife, a 23-year employee in the city attorney’s office, had to unceremoniously “retire” after Phillips revealed that she had violated city policy by using city computers and her work email account to advocate for her husband’s election.
Robert Davis and Alex Duensing round out the race.
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