A City Asleep

St. Pete council elections don't find a hotbed of voter interest

click to enlarge Cathy Harrelson - All Photos Valerie Troyano
All Photos Valerie Troyano
Cathy Harrelson

The only thing harder than trying to get elected to public office in St. Petersburg is campaigning at a time when most voters aren't paying attention.

The city is, after all, in the midst of the second term of a popular Republican mayor. St. Pete boasts progress in its downtown, in the sky (construction cranes everywhere) and on the street (a much-loved dining and arts district). The poverty-gripped Midtown neighborhood, scene of past race riots, has seen streetscape improvements, a new grocery store and calm.

The problems that remain — a demoralized and understaffed police department and some neighborhoods under siege from drug-related crimes — have been kept just below the boiling point by Mayor Rick Baker, with a little help from his friends at the St. Petersburg Times editorial board.

And while property taxes and insurance rates are atop most every St. Pete's residents concerns, that doesn't mean they are ready to march on City Hall. Or vote in the upcoming Sept. 11 election.

"I call it the loneliest primary in America," said Cathy Harrelson, who is in a field of four candidates running to replace the term-limited Bill Foster in District 3.

"It's very difficult," agreed Ed Montanari, one of her opponents. "Things are going well in the city and a lot of people don't know there's a race going on."

St. Pete moved its municipal elections to the fall a few years ago, and most voters don't seem to have caught on yet. Additionally, it has an unusual system where candidates run within a smaller district boundary in the primary, but the top two finishers in each district then run against each other citywide.

Confusing, huh?

Although there will be more races on the Nov. 6 general election ballot, only two districts drew enough candidates to hold a primary next week: District 5, which runs south of downtown along the Bayfront all the way to Pinellas Point; and District 3, which is centered east of Fourth Street in neighborhoods such as Shore Acres and Snell Isle.

Of the two races, the more crowded and intense is in District 3, where Montanari has built a strong list of endorsements (including the daily newspaper, Councilman Foster and Mayor Baker) and holds an edge in fundraising.

Montanari, 49, rose to prominence in St. Pete politics by taking on the unenviable volunteer job of heading up a diverse task force designed to figure out what to do with Albert Whitted Airport.

He calls the result — new terminal, aviation-themed playground, more aircraft ramp space and a new nearby waterfront park — "my biggest achievement." The Air Force veteran and American Airlines pilot uses Albert Whitted as an example of the type of leadership he says he would bring to the City Council: the ability to craft a compromise between many different coalitions.

His views aren't that different from those of the nonestablishment candidate, Harrelson. The local Sierra Club president, she worked in municipal finance for more than a decade, giving her an edge on two key issues: growing the city in harmony with the environment and dealing with the budget cuts forced by property tax reform.

"Most people feel that the city has overspent," she said. "That really is the overarching issue."

Harrelson, 53, is slightly more critical of the current administration at City Hall, saying she "doesn't want to be a bobblehead" nodding yes to everything that shows up on a council agenda. She also says it is time for St. Pete to make some tough decisions about its future growth, the density of redevelopment that could allow for more mass transit, and affordable housing. "We are at a changing point," she said.

The third candidate, 63-year-old "Coach" Bill Dudley, ran in this district four years ago, losing to Foster. He's less diplomatic and more plainspoken than his opponents, criticizing the mayor for not acting more quickly to cut government spending.

"I don't think the city prepared fast enough," said the retired schoolteacher and high school wrestling coach. "They saw this coming."

One example: some of the streetscaping around town. "Medians and trees, they are very pretty and very nice, but with impending budget cuts statewide, the wisdom of that should have been thought out a little bit more," he said.

The fourth candidate, 37-year-old screenwriter and title company owner Cliff Gephardt, has a less visible campaign. He could not be reached for comment.

If there was one event that encapsulates the theme of the District 5 race, it would be the Greater Pinellas Point Neighborhood Association's candidate forum on Aug. 21.

As about 40 residents found their fold-up metal chairs inside the Bay Vista Community Center, their neighbor, incumbent councilman Jamie Bennett, schmoozed with people he's known for 20 years. Opponent Chris Kelly, Heritage Pinellas co-founder and a more recent Point resident, stayed seated, chatting with the people around him. Debra Johnson-Woodard — the third candidate, a Christian schoolteacher and relatively unknown community activist — sat by herself, occasionally chatting with a woman next to her.

Bennett had campaign signs. Johnson-Woodard had photocopied sheets with a short resume. Kelly had nothing.

After a public forum that included questions from residents concerning recycling, homelessness and population growth, the neighbors filed out. They didn't need to speak to the candidates; their minds were already made up.

"I think Jamie Bennett has done a really good job," said George Henderson, a 30-year resident. "I don't know the extent to which the other candidates could follow through."

It's a bad time to be a challenger.

Bennett, 55, has an edge on everything that matters in elections: money (nearly $3,000 according to the latest fundraising reports; Kelly raised $800; Johnson-Woodard, $255), experience (already six years as a councilmember) and name recognition in a district he's lived in for more than 20 years.

"You have two other council people leaving," Bennett says, "and so you're going to need some veteran experience around."

Both of Bennett's challengers are banking on dissatisfied voters.

"This city is in trouble," says Johnson-Woodard, 55, who is looking for the votes of working-class families and church-goers. "It's just not another day in the neighborhood. ... We've done the beautification of downtown, the tall buildings looking to attract a different type of clientele, but right now we need to make sure we're looking at the basic needs of our citizens."

Kelly, 41, is the antithesis to Bennett on most fronts; he's a Baker supporter vs. Bennett's criticism of the mayor on some key issues, including the city's treatment of the homeless.

Bennett points to his role as chairman of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Network. But Kelly questions Bennett's accomplishments in that area over the past six years: "I'm not interested in ending homelessness in 10 years. I'm interested in everyone in our society [living] together and [having] access to the same services."

Bennett decries the tax cuts forcing cities to slash city services: "Protecting the quality of life has been the theme of my campaign. There's a reason we all live in an urban environment. ... that kind of quality of life we have to protect."

Kelly wants to minimize the impact of tax cuts with public and private partnerships that don't require taxpayer money.

"The answer to many of the problems facing us are off-budget solutions," he says.

At the end of the Aug. 21 meeting, environmental activist Ray Wunderlick III, who lives outside the district in the Allendale Terrace neighborhood, was one of the few waiting to speak to the challengers.

"He's intellectual, he's well-spoken, he has a grasp of the issues," Wunderlick said about Kelly. "He would be an excellent candidate."

He paused for a moment.

"However, I have my support behind Jamie Bennett."

Scroll to read more Tampa Bay News articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.