ST. PETERSBURG — Mayoral hopeful Deveron Gibbons pulled to the front of a crowded field Friday, raising a daunting $117,752 and shattering the record for the most money raised in a single reporting period.
Real estate investor Scott Wagman trailed behind in second place with $74,097, including a $20,000 personal loan.
In all, more than $250,000 was reported in the troughs of eight mayoral hopefuls, setting the stage for what could be one of the most expensive elections in St. Petersburg history.
Wagman and Gibbons are both first-time candidates with deep pockets and powerful friends. They trumped candidates who have previously held elected offices in the city.
Campaign finance reports, considered a barometer of a candidate's influence and organizational strength, can be an early indicator of success. Since at least 1993, the mayoral candidate who raised the most money has won.
Gibbons, a corporate executive and former Tallahassee lobbyist, attributed his success to the connections he has built throughout the city and the state.
"We're in the toughest recession this country has seen in the last 20 years," he said. "That mayor has got to be able to go to Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., to help find and pull in resources. No longer can the mayor — and this has been proven — just be the mayor of St. Pete and run around St. Petersburg."
Gibbons, a Republican, already has faced criticism during the campaign for holding fundraisers in Orlando and Tallahassee. On Friday, he noted that 344 of his 542 contributors were city residents. Overall, Gibbons raised about $42,000 from St. Petersburg residents, according to campaign finance reports.
"It's not buying the campaign," Gibbons said. "I didn't put $20,000 of my own money in this campaign."
Wagman, a Democrat, leads the pack in spending. Wagman nearly emptied his campaign's bank account, spending $50,444 on staff, research and computer services. Consultants Mitch Kates and Larry Biddle, of PlanningWorks LLC, collected $28,998 from Wagman.
Contributors, Wagman said, "responded to change, they responded to someone with new, fresh ideas."
Wagman said he was not worried about Gibbon's coffer. "We knew that Deveron with his lobbyist connections, his Tallahassee connections, was going to raise a lot of money," Wagman said.
Gibbons, meanwhile, seems to be in a saving mode. He spent only $12,315 on office supplies and his Web site.
While city elections are nonpartisan, that's not always true in practice. Contributors, for example, often donate along party lines.
Voters tend to be less predictable. St. Petersburg, an overwhelmingly Democratic city, elected Republican Mayor Rick Baker twice.
Gibbons' fiercest Republican competitor is former council member Bill Foster, who reported raising roughly $23,500. Foster said he mailed his finance report to the City Clerk's Office to meet Friday's deadline, making his detailed reports unavailable for public inspection.
"Honestly, I'm not running against anyone else," Foster said. "I could care less what the other camps are doing or raising. I'm running my own campaign, and the people of St. Petersburg are smart enough to know that the mayor's office is not for sale."
Former council member Kathleen Ford, a Democrat, has raised $12,567 in her second mayoral bid. She expects to raise more before the next round of reports are due in July. She lost her first mayoral race to Baker in 2001.
"We know the money is going to be there," said Ford, who joined the race in mid February. "This is an unbelievable economy, and, quite frankly, we've been thrilled by the support we've gotten and are getting."
Former council member Larry Williams, a Republican who also ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2001, has raised $300 so far this year.
Council member Jamie Bennett, the only elected official running for mayor, could not be reached for comment Friday.
On his blog, he wrote: "I am very proud of the fundraising effort our campaign has put forth. We are not blessed with connections to special interests. Instead, we are fortunate to have a broad network of those concerned about a better St. Petersburg. And those are the people who wrote $10, $20 and $50 checks to my campaign."
Among Gibbons' contributors: St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler, state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, former Pinellas GOP chairman Paul Bedinghaus, Tallahassee lobbyist Ron Book and former Jeb Bush staffer and Tallahassee lobbyist David Rancourt.
Wagman's contributors included: Clearwater builder Alan Bomstein, Cornerstone Bank chief executive Dave Feaster, state Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, and Echelon Development chairman Darryl LeClair.
The maximum donation one person or corporation can give a candidate is $500.