CL Endorsement: Re-Elect Rick Kriseman as Mayor of St. Petersburg

It’s about values — and yes, it’s partisan.

click to enlarge Mayor Rick Kriseman photographed in the Skyway Marina District in 2015. - Todd Bates
Todd Bates
Mayor Rick Kriseman photographed in the Skyway Marina District in 2015.

“Spoiler alert: You’re going to endorse Baker in the form of Kriseman!”

That was the prediction of the Uhuru Solidarity Movement’s Jesse Nevel when we met with him at [email protected] last week to talk about his candidacy for St. Petersburg mayor. 

Kind of an odd conversational salvo, to tell his interviewers (CL News & Politics Editor Kate Bradshaw and myself) that we were planning on endorsing somebody other than himself.

So I asked him why he’d even bothered to come.

“Because I was invited,” was his answer.

Which is true, and more power to him for responding to the invitation. He agreed to talk to us, and so did Mayor Kriseman. So did Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter, even though she told us she’d read “all the mean stuff” we’d written about her. Anthony Cates III couldn’t meet in person, but answered questions by email.

Only two candidates missed the opportunity to make a case to Creative Loafing readers about why voters on Aug. 29 should elect them mayor of St. Pete:

The elusive homophobe Paul Congemi, who did not respond to our email, and Rick Baker. 

The once and wannabe-future mayor’s campaign manager, Brigitta Shouppe, told us cordially, after several inquiries, that she would ask Mr. Baker but wasn’t sure he’d want to meet with us because our coverage of him has not been “fair.” She pointed as an example to a Kate Bradshaw story in which she reported on a Kriseman press conference critical of Baker but didn’t follow up with the Baker campaign for a response. I agreed that that was an oversight; Kate agrees, too. But we weren’t given any more specifics than that. Granted, CL can be pointed, and snarky, and, yes, kind of critical of Republicans (the party to which Baker belongs). But we’ve been balanced, too, acknowledging successes on Baker’s part and missteps on Kriseman’s. 

And I for one wanted a chance to meet Rick Baker on the record. I’ve known people who’ve worked for him, and who like him personally, and I guess I’d hoped this meeting would offer a chance to see the man they see.

But he — what? Hid? Didn’t want to risk a conversation with big, bad, boohoo unfair Creative Loafing? Or maybe he feels like he has this election in the bag so why bother, what with the Times’s All Sewage, All The Time coverage playing conveniently and obediently into his hand?

But this election is not just about sewage, is it? For all of the malarkey about it being a non-partisan race, it’s intensely partisan, at a time when sides need to be taken. 

To the Uhurus, there’s no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans; they’re all just one big machine, ignoring the real problems in St. Petersburg while filling the pockets of rich white men, and the only way to combat them is to upend the system entirely. Many of the points Nevel and the Uhurus make about the mistreatment of the African-American population are on target; the black community has been undermined and underserved for years in St. Petersburg (a point that Momma Tee Lassiter also makes), and the call for reparations of some kind should be addressed. Nevel is white (the Uhuru Solidarity Movement is made up of white supporters who work “under the leadership of the black working-class-led movement”), and says he’s found many white voters who approve the idea of reparations. He articulated his views with contained passion during our conversation, and he was convincing in his calls for workers’ councils in city government, particularly in Water Resources; for a moratorium on high-rises; and for attention to black youth who see no future for themselves. 

But his campaign’s central principle — the idea that the current system is rigged beyond repair and that the only solution is for him and his supporters to take over and clean the place out — feels like a flip-side version of the same fuck-it-all politics that gave us Trump. (The Uhuru mindset seems to have an occasionally Trumpian relationship with reality, too. Case in point: I asked Nevel about the now-notorious League of Women Voters debate on July 10 in which Uhuru supporters shouted and chanted so loudly that other candidates could not be heard. His take: “There were people in the audience clapping.”) He even sounds a little like Trump when he talks about appealing to voters who want something “radically different” — and compares his supporters to the president’s, saying that Trump’s voters “were attempting to reject the status quo,” which is what his voters want, too.

Granted, there’s plenty wrong with the status quo. But as has become all too clear in the past several months, the belief in a kind of scorched-earth approach to governing is unrealistic and hypocritical and leads to nothing but legislative inertia and social unrest, no matter what side you’re on. We don’t need that in a president; we don’t need that in a mayor.

But you know what? We also don’t want a mayor who refuses to condemn that kind of leadership in his own party. Rick Baker has not publicly criticized Donald Trump even as the president has irresponsibly and heedlessly sown racial and societal division. What’s that say about Baker’s values? St. Petersburg entered a level of tolerance and openness in the Kriseman years, with a mayor who did stand up to Trump, who did speak eloquently after Charlottesville, who did raise a rainbow flag, and who has had the courage to do so despite pushback that has come sometimes even in the form of death threats. Do we want to turn back to a time when St. Petersburg is not associated with that kind of courage, those kinds of values? 

Kriseman’s administration has by no means been error-free, but in our conversation he responded candidly and reasonably to criticism. Semantics matter to him, perhaps too much; when we asked about the sewage crisis, he objected to the term “crisis,” reasoning that the word implies “that you‘re in the middle of it and there hasn’t been any action to try and figure out what you’re doing. We’re beyond it. We’re in a repair mode, and we’re almost finished with the first part of the expansion mode, which is adding capacity to Southwest and Northwest [sewage plants].” He acknowledges that the administration could have handled the spill situation better, but still believes that poor communication both privately and publicly at the public works department was part of the problem, and that the department is big and complex enough that it needed a communications director of its own (which both the fire and police departments already have) — hence the move to hire someone for that position for $90,000. (Perhaps if there’d been someone in such a role already, he or she would have pointed out the bad optics of seeming to pour money into official BS amidst a crisis involving actual S.)

He responded forcefully to charges that his administration is too layered with highly paid bureaucrats, pointing out that he has only one deputy mayor to Baker’s four, and citing a Times column that found the former mayor to have hired more highly paid staffers than Kriseman had. As for how he works with those staffers, he said that his leadership style, as opposed to the micromanagement that has been ascribed to Baker, is “more collaborative… to break down the silos that existed” in the Baker and Foster years.

As for charges from the Times/Baker contingent that city spending is out of control, he points to two 2017 studies that named St. Pete “the best-run city in Florida” (WalletHub) and “the most fiscally sound city in Florida” (Financial Times). And he’s adamant that the Times, in its reporting on the Pier, has conflated two separate pools of money to shore up arguments that the project is over budget. In fact, he says, the $50 million budget for the Pier itself has been in place “for years” and has not changed, and the $20 million for the pier approach was drawn from tax revenues in the Intown Community Redevelopment Area (a move approved by the County Commission) to implement the waterfront master plan. 

These funds are drawn from resources dedicated to the waterfront, and can’t legally be shifted to other areas of the city — say, the South Side. But Kriseman points to a number of programs that are directing funds toward Midtown, including rebates for rehab and a home buyer assistance program that offers 0% interest loans. He is keenly aware of the inequities that exist, and lists a number of efforts intended “to lift and get people out of poverty”: the Brother’s and Sister’s Keepers program aimed at addressing opportunity gaps among young men and women of color; the Cohort of Champions youth training program; and “creating the largest CRA in Pinellas in South St. Pete.” 

Viewing the changes in Midtown from what he calls “30,000 feet” ignores the incremental progress that is visible if one looks closer. “What you see are 400 businesses that are open that weren’t four years ago, a 174 percent increase in business permits in the CRA that four years ago didn’t happen. You see 3,000 people who were living in poverty but aren’t today.”

There’s much, much more to do, he acknowledges, and a single mayoral term has not been enough time for him to accomplish all that has to happen in the city. “It’s a big tanker — it doesn’t turn on a dime. It takes time to turn it.” 

That said, it’s interesting to look back at a Times endorsement from 2013 — for Kriseman. They commend him for a series of campaign promises, and since that time he has done what he said he’d do in every area they mention, from the Rays to the Pier to the police department to curbside recycling. 

What changed? 

”It’s an election year,” Kriseman surmises.

But, wait, it’s a non-partisan race, right?

“First off,” says the mayor, “I disagree with Rick Baker that what happens in Washington and what happens in Tallahassee aren’t important, that we should just focus on what’s happening in the city. Because in fact what happens in Washington and what happens in Tallahassee affects the city every day. It’s a non-partisan seat, but your party reflects your values. And even though 99 percent of the time that you’re governing, you govern in a non-partisan manner, your values still reflect what your beliefs are and what you will stand for — and what you will not stand for. [Baker] still to this day has not called out President Trump for the things he has said. I don’t understand why not. Because I think the president has created an atmosphere that allows those who are bigots, who discriminate, to feel emboldened and empowered, and I think it’s very dangerous. And I will not ever shy from speaking out about that.”

We’d like to know what Rick Baker thinks, but he was as silent in his dealings with us as he has been in speaking out against Trump.

And contrary to Jesse Nevel’s spoiler alert, I don’t believe Baker and Kriseman are interchangeable. If anything, a vote for Baker in this climate is a vote for his fellow Republican, the man in the White House. 

And that’s not a vote I believe anybody should feel comfortable casting.

Creative Loafing enthusiastically endorses Rick Kriseman for re-election as mayor of St. Petersburg.

The St. Petersburg primary takes place Aug. 29. If no mayoral candidate succeeds in drawing more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top finishers will go on to compete in the Nov. 7 election. Find links to excerpts of all of our interviews with the mayoral candidates at cltampa.com/news.

CL is not making an endorsement in the race for St. Petersburg City Council District 6 at this time. 

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