Five takeaways from the romp that was the first Rick-off of 2017

Kriseman vs. Baker — oh, where to begin?

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click to enlarge Baker, right, responds to a question Tuesday night. - Kate Bradshaw
Kate Bradshaw
Baker, right, responds to a question Tuesday night.

It's another make-it-fucking-stop summer here in St. Pete, and we're not talking about the heat (there's frosé for that, silly).

We're talking about politics.

The St. Pete mayoral race is off and running aaand it's off the chain.

On Tuesday night, while most St. Petians were at the gym or happy hour or walking their doggos or whatever it is people with kids do in the evening, hundreds packed into a multipurpose room at south St. Pete's Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church Tuesday night for the first debate between the two best-known contenders in the St. Pete mayoral race. It's a seven-way race, but the two most mainstream candidates — former mayor Rick Baker and current mayor Rick Kriseman — are getting most of the attention.

Tuesday's debate was all over the place, but here are some key happenings that said a lot about the candidates — and the voters.

1) Holy shit, a lot of people are apparently interested in this race. If you're anything like this reporter, hordes of people can wig you out sometimes. It's called enochlophobia and may, in this case, stem from covering too many Trump rallies/watching The Walking Dead before bed last fall. Tuesday's debate drew at least 300 people to a room that could comfortably fit about 100 at best. Most people stayed till the end, too, reacting to audience questions and the candidates' responses.

Many questions dealt with issues of particular interest to south St. Pete, a predominantly African-American area that has not seen remotely the same prosperity as areas north of Central Avenue: How to deal with the effects of re-segregating schools; how the two major candidates' views on policing impact the community; how to bring good jobs (and retail) to the south side; how to makes schools better.

The south side is probably one of the most active areas in this election, so maybe the severely restricted amounts of personal and parking space were due to that. This is politics post-2016, so who really knows anything anymore?

2) Get used to it: party politics are a thing in nonpartisan elections now and most people there probably already had their minds made up. It was a bit surprising that Kriseman didn't say the T-word in a room where a solid 80 percent of the people there likely didn't vote for the Donald (guesstimating here, but still). In response to questions about party affiliation, Baker — a staunch conservative Republican — said he was of the belief that party affiliation shouldn't matter at the local level.

Kriseman countered that actually, it does kinda matter, though: "What party you're in defines what your values are because it's the beliefs that are put forward, whether it's on the national level or the state level. And so my party believes in Obamacare and that 17,000 people [in the city] who have health insurance today should continue to have that health insurance. My party believes that felons' rights should be restored... and so while on the day-to-day operations of your job, your being a Republican or Democrat isn't important, your party does matter because it represents your values and it represents that you're supporting candidates like Barack Obama or you're supporting candidates like John McCain and Sarah Palin."

So, yeah, he could've thrown Trump in there just as easily as Baker weaves blaming Kriseman for St. Pete's sewage woes into unrelated topics. After all, Baker hasn't said whether he voted for Trump and is enjoying support from the same people who financially helped 45 (Mel Sembler, etc.).

It's unclear whether party politics — the fact that Baker wanted to make Barack Obama a one-term president (and may have served on Romney's cabinet if that had happened) and Kriseman famously tweeted he was "banning" Trump from St. Pete — will have an impact on the election's outcome. Baker allies seem, ya know, baked-in, and that includes some Democrats (buuuuuut the big money is coming, again, from Republicans). A recent poll suggests he has a five-point lead over Kriseman at the moment, and Baker crushed it in a straw poll following the debate (Baker 114, Kriseman 48 — note how not everyone who showed up took part).

But partisanship could make a bigger difference if, say, someone unearths a photo of Baker wearing a MAGA hat. (That will never happen; he seemed to be eying this race before Trump even announced and thus knew to steer clear.)

click to enlarge Kriseman addresses a packed room Tuesday. - Kate Bradshaw
Kate Bradshaw
Kriseman addresses a packed room Tuesday.

3) Baker's zinger game is hella strong. It's the "but her emails" of this election, an incredibly complex matter upon which an opposing candidate can capitalize via oversimplification: sewage. The infamous sewage discharges happened under Kriseman's watch, and it's a way to get Baker's supporters excited.

Perhaps it was the fact that it seemed like Baker's mic was louder during the first half of the event, but their speaking styles contrast one another pretty dramatically. Baker's voice booms with concise, confident assertions while Kriseman, though also a strong speaker, offers thoughtful (if wonky) policy positions — which could make him seem weak.

4) Kriseman might want to make use of the word "seam." "Seamless city" — Baker utters the phrase (also the moniker for his 2011 book) often. He says his philosophy on governing the city in part comprises eliminating barriers that separate neighborhoods in a way that fosters economic opportunity everywhere but doesn't diminish a neighborhood's character or culture. When Kriseman described Central Avenue — a very real dividing line between south St. Pete and the rest of the city dating back to Jim Crow — he likened it to a wall.

Central Avenue is a seam, dude. Call it a seam if you want to win.

5) Jesse Nevel will continue to be a disruptive force, but that's probably not a totally bad thing. The Uhuru candidate, Jesse Nevel, doesn't get why most debate formats only allow monied mainstream candidates to participate. He posits that it's because his message is too radical ("Unity through reparations" is his slogan) for media outlets and others to abide.

So embedded in the audience Tuesday were people who demanded that debate organizers include all candidates. The question — which surfaces in almost every election where there are multiple candidates — came up more than once. Both candidates said they'd be fine with debating the other five, though from where we were sitting the audience didn't seem all that interested. Pastor Lewis Murphy Sr., a church official, had said the reason the two candidates were the only ones up there was that they were the only candidates running when the church began organizing the event. Whether he was talking about the timeline in which they announced or qualified, the claim was provably inaccurate, a Nevel supporter said (Nevel announced his run in March, two months before Baker had, and heralded meeting criteria for qualifying in early June). That's when moderator Tammie Fields stepped in and told the audience she wouldn't tolerate someone calling Murphy a liar in his own place of worship.

So, that was interesting.

Nevel and his associates postponed a protest they were set to hold outside a Baker fundraiser at the St. Pete Yacht Club Wednesday, but given his campaign's persistent demand to be heard, they're probably not going anywhere.

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