Plot twist! St. Pete's unexpected mayoral primary outcome & you

So, like, what now?

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click to enlarge LOOK BACK IN ANGER: The former mayor speaks to his supporters on Election Night. - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
LOOK BACK IN ANGER: The former mayor speaks to his supporters on Election Night.

It felt like November 6, 2012 all over again at the State Theatre in downtown St. Pete. Supporters of incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman cheerily mingled and imbibed, seemingly letting out a massive collective sigh. They had dodged a bullet.

For a few moments in the beginning it had been touch and go. Former Mayor Rick Baker, Kriseman’s toughest challenger and a favorite among pundits, appeared ahead in the mail ballot tally. But then the precinct numbers came in. And by the end of the night, Kriseman had won the six-candidate primary by 69 votes.

They did it. Their guy had not only made it into the November 7 runoff against Baker, they’d bested a candidate many believed would take the primary outright with more than half the vote, thereby unseating Kriseman.

The incumbent took the stage Tuesday night to Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “I Won’t Back Down” as the crowd cheered.

“We didn’t back down, did we?” Kriseman asked the cheering crowd. “We’re not going to back down going forward, are we?”

Kriseman took 48.36 percent to Baker’s 48.23 percent, or 27,322 to 27,253.

It was well after polls closed that Baker took to the podium at his watch party at Staybridge Suites several blocks away from Kriseman’s soirée. When he did, the mood turned dour. He appeared incensed as he shouted his speech, much of which he spent attacking Kriseman. It was a far cry from earlier in the day, when he addressed reporters with his usual confidence after casting his ballot.

After months of conventional wisdom, polling and punditry confidently putting him in the lead as he hammered Kriseman, he’d not only taken a shot at winning outright and missed, but it was an air ball and he was not happy about it.

So, how’d it happen? And what now?

Trump bump/Obama drama?

There’s no way to know what exactly happened in voters’ heads leading up to Tuesday’s outcome. But party affiliation and the national political climate — Trump’s unwillingness to disavow white supremacists or accept climate science) seemed to matter enough to at least make a difference.

Consider the words of Pinellas County School Board member Renée Flowers, who spoke passionately Tuesday night.

“We’ve held the line,” she said. “We’ve done it together. And we’ve done it because we have a progressive, forward-moving mayor; somebody who cares about restoration of rights for those individuals that have paid their debt to society so that they can have a right to vote. We’ve done it because our mayor said that this city is going to be a sanctuary city so that those individuals who are seeking asylum and need our protection, have our protection. Rick Kriseman did that.”

St. Pete, after all, is not a city where you’ll see loads of MAGA bumper stickers in the wild; it’s a city that drew more than 20,000 to its Women’s March in January, one that generally elects Democrats in partisan races. Democratic turnout in Tuesday’s primary dwarfed that of Republican turnout (which makes sense, given that Dems far outnumber Republicans in the city), though Baker did manage to appeal to enough of the city’s Democratic-leaning African American voters to make a difference.

It is technically a nonpartisan race, and some voters managed to look past Baker’s deep Republican roots (assuming they even know he has them) and give him their backing, thanks in part to his aggressive avoidance of putting anything in partisan terms — unlike Kriseman. The latter has sought to tie Baker to President Trump; Baker won’t say who he voted for in 2016 and has never openly condemned any of Trump’s words or actions.

What is unclear is what Tuesday’s numbers would have been if former President Barack Obama had endorsed Kriseman before mail ballots went out. Also unclear is whether the Dems can manage to get Obama himself down to the Sunshine State to stump for Kriseman, perhaps sometime in October (maybe someone can pass along to him how good the kite-surfing is off northern Pass-a-Grille). If that happens, Baker may as well just take it easy from then on.

click to enlarge ELECTIONEERING TILL THE END: The current mayor meets a future voter on Election Day. - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
ELECTIONEERING TILL THE END: The current mayor meets a future voter on Election Day.

Ground games

What was clear well before was how doggedly volunteers from both campaigns sought support, knocking on doors practically right up to when the polls closed.

Anecdotally, activist Lucinda Johnston said that, while knocking on doors on Election Day, she greeted several voters who weren’t even aware there was an election that day, and said she managed to convince them to go to the polls (and, presumably, vote for Kriseman).

But what about yard signs?

For some reason, these rectangular eyesores took center stage early on this election cycle. There seemed to be far more Baker signs, especially large ones along major corridors, yet Kriseman’s campaign headquarters ran out of theirs anyway.

But yard signs, of course, don’t translate into votes.

Nice weather we’re having

Baker has made St. Petersburg’s wastewater infrastructure the centerpiece of his case against Kriseman, asserting multiple times that his opponent “broke” the sewer system, leading the city to flush millions of gallons of partially treated sewage into the bay. That assertion centers on the decision to close the Albert Whitted water treatment plant in 2015 — which had been in the works well before Kriseman even ran for mayor — and how Kriseman could have stopped it. Intense storms come and, boom, wastewater infrastructure is so inundated that officials have no choice but to send it out into the bay (rather than back up our drains). 

While rainy weather still passes through almost daily here, including Tropical Storm Emily, which abruptly formed on a recent Monday morning, the Kriseman team asserts that ongoing improvements as part of the state-mandated $300 million “Kriseman plan” are helping stave off the need to dump sewage.

More than a feather in the GOP’s cap

As much as Baker enjoys support from some Democrats (again, longtime South Side allies), it’s the support from his own party that’s boosting his candidacy. 

And why wouldn’t they?

For the Republican-dominated state Legislature, liberal cities like St. Petersburg are a proverbial thorn in its side. St. Pete is always among the first to pass pro-environment and pro-worker ordinances, which Kriseman champions — but monied interests find them burdensome. Thus, they get lawmakers to block local policies at the state level, a practice called preemption. The city is considering a plastic bag ban, for example, which probably wouldn’t happen if lawmakers could hand-pick the city’s leadership.

So to have one of their guys in the mayor’s office would be more than symbolic for a party that has used gerrymandering and voter suppression to take control at all other levels of government.

Hippies vs. the Money Hose

At Kriseman’s bash, a younger supporter of his joked about how the city’s large population of “hippies” who helped lend the city its cool factor must have shown up in droves Tuesday.

One question is whether they can keep the momentum going even after the Baker camp regroups with what will likely be an extremely well-funded game plan. Come November, we’ll find out the degree to which money really talks in local elections. Baker supporters like his boss, billionaire developer/Rowdies owner Bill Edwards, will likely pour even more gobs of money into his Seamless PAC. Though with 2018 Republican primary races starting to heat up, perhaps some of those sources will be tied up in other races.

Yet it’s not as though big money won’t be coming in on the other side, too. Democrats across the state view this as a crucial win — so they’ll probably want to order some more of those yard signs.

Bean, Driscoll, et al

While most of the hype surrounded the six-person mayoral primary, the City Council District 6 primary narrowed from eight candidates to two: Justin Bean and Gina Driscoll. These two also happen to be aligned, respectively, with Baker and Kriseman. So in a way, it’s kind of a proxy race. But its outcome will have a huge impact on the conversations that take place at City Hall and the level of support for the mayor’s initiatives (Baker or Kriseman) at the dais. The seat’s current occupant, Councilman Karl Nurse (who is terming out), has been reliably progressive and was a key vote on the Tampa Bay Rays’ lease agreement to play in the city. Regardless of who it is that takes over, that person will represent the most diverse district in the city.

The northern District 2 seat is also up for grabs; newcomers Brandi Gabbard and Barclay Harless/Robert Blackmon are in the running for that one. They are expected to face off in their first campaign forum Sept. 7 at a Tiger Bay Club event.

Mean season indeed

The mayoral race is about to get even nastier, if Baker’s Election Night address is any indication; of the 15 minutes he spoke (nay, shouted) following the results, he spent five bashing Kriseman. In Kriseman’s four-minute speech, he had words of his own for Baker.

City Council Chair Darden Rice said Tuesday night that she is ready for the fight, but that she expects the Baker camp will try to divide the city in a way that’s familiar to her.

“[M]any of us remember that people around [Baker] were only too happy to play up and invent discord between gays and blacks that doesn’t exist when there’s not people around trying to use it as an issue,” Rice said on Election Night. “And we’re going to shut that shit down.” 

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