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.