ST. PETERSBURG — The campaign of City Council candidate Robert Kersteen got a major financial boost this month from one of downtown's biggest players, Mahaffey Theater operator and BayWalk owner Bill Edwards.
Kersteen, who is running against Charles Gerdes in the Nov. 8 election for the District 1 council seat, received $5,000 from 10 separate businesses controlled by Edwards, who made his fortune as a mortgage executive.
Those contributions make up nearly a third of the total $16,331 he has raised so far, causing some to question the type of influence, if any, Edwards would have on Kersteen.
"I am not particularly fond of the way (Edwards) makes his money," said Vince Cocks, a member of the Pinellas County Democrats and vice president of Faith House, a halfway house in St. Petersburg. "I am much less fond of the fact that such an egregious amount was donated to a public official (who) if elected, would already smell of a conflict of interest."
Recent moves made by Edwards nearly guarantee that he or representatives associated with his businesses will make future requests of City Council, where Kersteen would be one of eight votes.
In April, Edwards' music promotions company won the contract to manage and operate the city-owned Mahaffey Theater, currently subsidized with taxpayer money. Records show that in September he spent $5.2 million to buy BayWalk, the 74,500-square-foot retail center that has sat nearly vacant for the past several months and was initially financed with taxpayer money. An adjacent city-owned parking garage depends heavily on BayWalk business to make its money.
Controlling the Mahaffey makes him a city vendor. Owning BayWalk makes Edwards one of downtown's highest profile landlords.
But Kersteen, who served on the City Council from 1995 to 2001, said he won't be swayed by Edwards if elected to the council.
"I'm my own man. I make my own decisions," said Kersteen, 74. "People don't give me a contribution and then tell me how to vote. If they did, I wouldn't take it."
Until October, the two didn't know each other. But Kersteen, who had fallen far behind the $32,000 Gerdes had raised by Sept. 30, phoned Edwards and sought to speak with him.
Kersteen said the two spoke by phone, where they discussed his position on issues and his political outlook. He said they never met face to face. He said he went to Edwards' office on Oct. 5 to pick up 10 $500 checks from his secretary. Under campaign contribution rules, any individual or corporation can give up to $500 to a council candidate per election. Edwards contributed the money through 10 separate companies.
Edwards, however, initially said that Kersteen called and made an appointment. He said the two then met in person to discuss Kersteen's views.
"First time I met him," Edwards said Tuesday.
But Wednesday Edwards said that he was thinking of someone else when he said he met Kersteen.
"I'm sorry, I gave you bad information," Edwards said. "I had the wrong person in mind. I've never met Bob."
Kersteen impressed Edwards as an honest, straight-forward candidate, Edwards said, but wouldn't elaborate on why he favored Kersteen over Gerdes. The race is nonpartisan, but Kersteen is a registered Republican and Gerdes, a Democrat. Edwards didn't contribute to any of the other five candidates running for council.
"It's my right to choose candidates and support them if I think they are the right person for the job," Edwards said. "Nothing more, nothing less."
Since 2009, Edwards said, he has donated $16 million to various charities and causes. He doesn't remember if he's contributed to St. Petersburg political races before. He said he probably has contributed to Treasure Island races. He didn't contribute to Mayor Bill Foster's 2009 campaign.
"No one asked," Edwards said.
Gerdes, 55, said he doesn't object to Kersteen getting contributions from Edwards. In fact, he said, he wouldn't turn down money from Edwards either.
Yet Gerdes did question the amount Kersteen received from Edwards.
"The appearance is very bad," Gerdes said. "If it made up 5 percent of his contributions, I don't think it's an issue. But when it's 30 percent of what you've raised, people might view it as a potential conflict of interest."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org