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In St. Petersburg mayor’s race, candidates make final appeals

By Charlie Frago
Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman, running against each other for the city's top job, spent the Saturday before Election Day working to get out the vote. [JAY NOLAN | Special to the Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — Rick vs. Rick is drawing to a close.

In the last weekend of a bitterly contested six-month mayoral campaign, incumbent St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker made their final appeals to voters, and their supporters hit the streets in hopes of boosting Election Day turnout.

Recent polls show an extraordinarily tight race, the outcome of which could hinge on who shows up to vote Tuesday.

Early Saturday, Kriseman and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, rallied about a dozen staff members and supporters at the mayor’s Euclid-St. Paul campaign headquarters.

As he has throughout the campaign, Kriseman depicted Tuesday’s vote as a choice between a progressive, tolerant city if he’s re-elected, and a step into an intolerant past if voters choose Baker.

A Baker win, he said, could play out much like President Donald Trump’s arrival in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.

"I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic," Kriseman said. "I worry tremendously about some of the things we’ve put in place that are having an impact in this community being overturned, being stricken, almost like we’re seeing in Washington right now."

Crist took a more upbeat tone, reminding the incumbent mayor he had appeared with him in the same place before the Aug. 29 primary.

"I liked the outcome then," Crist said. "Let’s do it again."

Later Saturday morning, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum stumped with Kriseman in Midtown. Gillum is running for governor.

Baker thanked phone bank volunteers at his Gateway headquarters Saturday afternoon. He said he was confident his campaign would prevail.

"I think we’re peaking at the right time," he said.

Baker said he did indeed plan to reverse some of Kriseman’s policies.

"If his accomplishments are closing a sewage plant and dumping 200 million gallons of sewage .?.?. yes, I intend to reverse that," Baker said, adding that he would also try to block plans to build restaurants on the Pier uplands.

Baker said he would not turn back the clock on the greater acceptance and inclusion of the city’s growing LGBT community, something Kriseman has suggested would happen.

The final days before the polls close at 7 p.m. Tuesday will be busy for both campaigns. Kriseman had more than 150 volunteers knocking on doors Saturday, said campaign manager Jacob Smith.

The Baker campaign planned two picnics and had several dozen people in the field, said Nick Hansen, Baker’s campaign director.

Both candidates planned to visit several churches Sunday, including large African-American congregations in Midtown and Childs Park, which could help decide the winner.

A "Souls to the Polls" voting turnout effort by churches and community groups will begin at noon today at Campbell Park Recreation Center in Midtown, driving voters to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office downtown for the last day of early voting.

Through Friday, 34,354 people had voted either by mail or at early voting sites.

Kriseman said he was confident more people would turn out Tuesday than did for the August primary. Higher turnout in a city with 30,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, he said, would benefit him.

In many ways, the race has already been historic.

It has been by far the most expensive in city history, with the two candidates widely expected to raise more than $3 million between them.

What’s more, for the first time, a former president weighed in. Former President Barack Obama’s August endorsement of Kriseman likely helped the incumbent mayor squeak out a victory in the primary a few days later.

Other top Democrats including former Vice President Joe Biden, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro have also backed Kriseman. The latest nod came late Friday when New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a possible 2020 presidential candidate, announced his endorsement.

Baker said the Democrats visiting St. Petersburg weren’t likely to sway the election either way. He said all of the city’s former living mayors have endorsed him.

"I will take the people that have lived here, that worked here, to build our city, over politicians that have come from outside of the state, in some cases, anytime," he said.

No mayoral race in the Sunshine City has been nastier. The Kriseman campaign has consistently attempted to paint Baker, mayor between 2001 and 2010, as a twin of Trump. One of Kriseman’s TV ads had Baker’s face morph into Trump’s. A mailer superimposed torch-waving white supremacists next to Baker.

For his part, Baker has run ads calling Kriseman incompetent and a national embarrassment and hammering the mayor for hiring Kevin King as chief of staff after King’s 2001 arrest for soliciting underage girls. King was never convicted, and the judge sealed the records in the case.

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