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In fundraising arms race, Rays donate another $50,000 to Kriseman

By Charlie Frago
State Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, left, Tampa Bay Rays spokeswoman Rafaela Amador, center, and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman talk with reporters during a press conference at Signature Flight Support in Tampa on Wednesday after returning from a flight delivering aid to Puerto Rico. A partnership between Rays Baseball, Moffitt Cancer Center, and several other organizations facilitated the delivery of aid for the island as well as provided evacuation for several cancer patients, some Rays organization family members, and about 3,000 tissue samples in an effort to protect over a decade of research at PHSU in cancer treatment. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays have donated another $50,000 to Mayor Rick Kriseman's re-election campaign, the latest major donation in a mayoral race that long ago reached the fundraising stratosphere.

The Rays, both as a team and through individual donations by owner Stu Sternberg and executives, have donated at least $81,500 to Kriseman. Their latest and largest contribution on Sept. 22 went to Kriseman's Sunrise political action committee.

SUNSHINE CITY SHOWDOWN: Keep up with the Tampa Bay Times coverage of the St. Petersburg mayoral race.

Both Baker and Kriseman have together raised nearly $2.5 million in their quest to preside over Florida's fifth largest city, making this the most expensive race in city history. Their total cash haul could very well exceed $3 million by the Nov. 7 election.

Council member Karl Nurse, who has been active in efforts to rein in spending in local elections, said the sheer amount of cash being shoveled into the race troubles him.

"You look at both sides and you see things that make you uncomfortable," Nurse said. "This is much more money than even my worst fears."

Kriseman traveled to Puerto Rico on Wednesday with Rays officials on a relief mission to the hurricane-stricken island. But both the mayor and the team prepared statements about the cash infusion before they left.

The mayor said he was grateful for the Rays' support, calling them a "great partner."

"We are a better city for having them," Kriseman's statement said. "The work they do to uplift our city makes the sun shine a little brighter on St. Petersburg."

Rays President Brian Auld's statement praised the "bold leadership" of Kriseman.

"We strongly support his commitment to inclusion and diversity, his work on poverty reduction, and his emphasis on regional cooperation," Auld said. "The city is flourishing, and Mayor Kriseman is the right leader for continued growth and prosperity."

Baker released a statement criticizing Kriseman's advocacy of a three-year agreement to allow the Rays to explore stadium options outside the city. That January 2016 agreement was approved by City Council.

"Rick Kriseman's giveaway of the Rays' contract was a bad deal for the city period," Baker said in his statement. "I'll let other draw their own conclusions from the campaign contributions that followed."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: St. Petersburg council acts to limit big money in city elections

Baker, who was mayor between 2001 and 2010, has his own deep-pocketed backers.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, has donated more than $100,000 to Baker's campaign through his Liberty Florida PAC. And Brandes, his family members and family trusts have contributed tens of thousands more.

"I'm all in for Rick Baker," Brandes texted to the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday.

And last month Baker's PAC, Seamless Florida, received a $50,000 donation from Conservative Principles for Florida, a PAC in Coral Gables controlled by state Rep. Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican, who was just named the GOP's pick for House Speaker if the party retains control as expected next year.

Baker has raised a total of more than $1.4 million through individual contributions and donations to his Seamless Florida PAC. Kriseman has raised nearly $1.1 million in individual contributions and donations to his Sunrise PAC. Both totals are from the latest reports filed through the end of September.

Earlier in the campaign, some Kriseman supporters called on Baker to recuse himself from any future negotiations with his current boss, Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Bill Edwards, if he were to become mayor. Edwards has donated at least $50,000 to Baker, who led the Rowdies' successful May referendum to allow the team to upgrade Al Lang Stadium if they land a Major League Soccer team.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Rick Baker wouldn't recuse himself from city business with his former boss

Baker said that if elected mayor he would not recuse himself from negotiating a possible stadium deal with the Rowdies or possible changes to the Mahaffey Theater contract with Edwards, whose company manages the theater.

Nurse, who supports Kriseman, was one of the loudest voices calling for Baker to avoid future dealings with Edwards if he won. On Tuesday, Nurse said he would have to think about asking Kriseman to do the same if the Rays decide to build a new ballpark in St. Petersburg.

He noted that Kriseman doesn't work for the Rays. But the mayor did champion a deal to let the team look for a new ballpark outside St. Petersburg, and Tampa officials believe the Rays are close to identifying a site there.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Stadium guru: Baseball can work for Tampa Bay in the right spot

"It's not apples to apples," Nurse said. "It's still not a great place to be."

Nurse also noted that Baker has received considerable financial support from developers.

He also pointed out that these kinds of massive campaign contributions are why the City Council took aim at political money last week. The council on Oct. 5 passed a controversial ordinance that would limit donations from individuals to a single PAC to $5,000 a year.

Activists seeking to limit the influence of money in politics see the city ordinance as a test case that could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But city attorneys argued that the ordinance was unconstitutional and will likely prompt expensive lawsuits that could cost the city millions.

Nurse voted for that ordinance. He said the kind of money being raised and spent in this mayoral race is worth the legal risk.

"I think you're seeing this and the Edwards (donations) and large donations from people who do business with the city," Nurse said. "That's the inherent economic conflict."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]