ST. PETERSBURG — Two years ago, more than 300 people jammed the Lakewood High School auditorium during a forum of candidates running for City Council and mayor.
On Wednesday night, fewer than 100 showed up to see seven candidates seeking four council seats, and 45 of those attending did so because of a required class assignment.
"It was either attend or write a paper, and I didn't want to write a paper," said Nancy Buttigieg, a Lakewood High senior. At least Buttigieg could vote. Others in her class weren't old enough.
With no mayor's race or controversial referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot, turnout could dip as low as that of 2007, when less than 10 percent of the city's 157,000 registered voters cast a ballot. By comparison, turnout tripled in 2009 with the mayoral race on the ballot.
But don't blame voter apathy solely on the off-year timing. Behold the races themselves. Steve Kornell is seeking re-election in District 5 where his opponent dropped out in August. In District 3, Bill Dudley is fending off a challenger, Brent Hatley, who openly gushes about him.
Hatley and Dudley actually hugged each other before the Wednesday night candidate forum. During their "debate," Hatley lauded Dudley and his wife as "wonderful people."
In the District 1 race for an open seat, lawyer Charlie Gerdes is running against Bob Kersteen, a former council member. Gerdes became a favorite in the race by out- raising Kersteen $32,705 to $9,161 through September. He also won 52 percent of the vote in a three-way Aug. 30 primary. Kersteen won 28 percent.
Meanwhile, the race in District 7 is a rematch from four years ago. Wengay Newton won the seat in 2007 by overcoming Gershom Faulkner. Faulkner has scored some key endorsements that could matter down the stretch, such as the one from the Police Benevolent Association.
But Newton has impressed many observers in his re-election bid. He's out-raised Faulkner 2-1. He won a Mount Zion Progressive Church straw poll Thursday night, 84-48.
"A lot of folks who supported Faulkner in 2007, across the board, are supporting Newton now," said Gypsy Gallardo, co-founder of Agenda 2010, a coalition of organizations pushing for higher voter turnout. "Back then, people knew Gershom. Now they know Wengay."
Former Faulkner supporters like County Commissioner Ken Welch say they're not publicly endorsing anyone this time.
During this week's two candidate forums, Newton appeared more in command of the issues. When asked Wednesday night about his opinion on red-light cameras, which Newton strongly opposes, Faulkner said he supports them, but said he needs to study the issue more.
"Newton seemed confident," said Berkley Whaley, a Lakewood High senior. "Faulkner didn't seem like he knew much. He should already have studied up on the red-light issue."
There's still time to make up ground.
Two significant candidate forums are next week: the League of Women Voter's forum at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall and the Tiger Bay Club at noon Friday at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.
"He's gaining momentum a little late," said Rene Flowers, a consultant for Faulkner who was District 7 council member from 1999-2007. "Part of that is his style. He's not aggressive. But I believe he'll step it up. You'll see a more energetic person."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 727-893-8037 or [email protected]