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Campaign contributions to St. Petersburg mayoral candidates pour in from outside the city

ST. PETERSBURG — Voters aren't the only interest group poised to play a role in the election of the city's next mayor.

Outside political interests have emerged as a significant variable in the 2009 mayoral campaign, with more than 45 percent of all campaign contributions coming from outside city boundaries.

A St. Petersburg Times analysis of campaign contributions found that the majority of candidates reached out to political heavyweights, business leaders and friends and family from across the nation to build their war chests in recent months.

The election is shaping up to be a highly anticipated horse race, with the fate of the state's fourth-largest city hinging on a crowded field of candidates still struggling to introduce themselves to voters.

"It's simply a reflection of the importance of the mayor's race," said University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson. "You've got a large number of candidates in an open-seat race, and there are a lot of people who have a vested interest in who the next mayor of St. Pete is and that ranges from business interests to neighborhood groups."

Corporate executive Deveron Gibbons raised the stakes, breaking campaign fundraising records and collecting nearly 67 percent of his total $112,736 haul from power brokers and residents outside St. Petersburg. Roughly 12 percent of Gibbons' money came from out of state.

Gibbons said his extensive network will help win St. Petersburg allies from across the country who will help spur economic development and growth.

"Money will help you in the campaign but it does not sway the voters," Gibbons said. "You have to be a leader and have a vision and people have to want to get behind you."

Many of Gibbons' St. Petersburg donations were in amounts less than $20. He hosted a barbecue fundraiser earlier this year and charged attendees $5 a plate.

"It's no different than having a fundraiser where the suggested contribution is $500 and I have it catered," he said. "I asked them to give what they could."

Gibbons' campaign also benefited from several affluent donors who were able to legally give more than the $500 maximum donation by channeling donations through different companies, a common political practice in competitive races. For example, Spring Hill businessman Paul Jallo gave a total of $3,500 through seven companies he owns.

"I don't think it is that prevalent enough for us to be worried about it," Gibbons said.

Council member Jamie Bennett, a New York native, also mined for potential supporters north of the Panhandle, constructing his campaign's foundation with cash from California, New York and Tennessee. About 28 percent of Bennett's cash came from outside of St. Petersburg. Roughly 70 percent was from within the city limits.

"This is just the first quarter," said Bennett. "Everyone is reaching out to their family and friends, and they live not necessarily in St. Petersburg."

The financial reports reflect a brewing rivalry between Gibbons and another political newcomer, business executive Scott Wagman.

Both men set ambitious fundraising goals, with Gibbons holding events in Tallahassee and Orlando, and Wagman's campaign setting a total cash goal of $500,000 by November. Gibbons seems to have won the first round, hauling in more than double Wagman's $53,997 kitty.

"When you are paying bills, the advertising firm doesn't care where the money comes from, so total dollars is probably the most important," Wagman said.

But, he added, "Money coming from outside is simply an expression of reciprocity … it's a real quid pro quo industry."

However, within St. Petersburg, Wagman was the victor, scooping up more dollars from potential voters than any other candidate, which could translate into an advantage in the Sept. 1 primary. He raised $40,435 in St. Petersburg.

Residents in downtown, Snell Isle and Greater Pinellas Point provided the most contributions in St. Petersburg.

As two of the city's wealthiest enclaves, downtown and Snell Isle are traditional centers of political influence.

"They are very proactive," said council member Bill Dudley, whose district includes Snell Isle. "They put their money where their mouth is."

Most of Kathleen Ford's donations came from downtown and the Historic Old Northeast, which are both in the council district she used to represent.

Historically, Greater Pinellas Point is not known as a bastion of political influence, but that could change with this election.

The two most recent elected officials to represent that area — Bennett and former council member Larry Williams — have deep community ties in Greater Pinellas Point.

Gibbons, a St. Petersburg native, also has an active support base in the city's southernmost tip, according to finance reports.

Candidates who raked in less than Wagman and Gibbons said the race will only get more expensive as the September primary nears and voters get more engaged.

"The crazy money will be in this one," predicted former council member and mayoral hopeful Bill Foster. "It's an important cycle."

The candidates

City Council member Jamie Bennett, 56; retired builder Paul Congemi, 52; lawyer Kathleen Ford, 51; lawyer Bill Foster, 46; business executive Deveron Gibbons, 36; political activist Alex Haak, 77; minister Sharon Russ, 48; real estate broker Scott Wagman, 56; and businessman Larry Williams, 64.

Key dates

Sept. 1 primary.

Nov. 3 general election.

Campaign contributions to St. Petersburg mayoral candidates pour in from outside the city 04/27/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 4:07pm]
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