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Nothing is a given in the St. Petersburg mayoral race

60, restaurateur

John Warren

60, restaurateur

ST. PETERSBURG — In the 2001 mayoral primary, Karl Nurse leaned on a group of about 25 neighborhood leaders to build support for his candidacy.

"If I had about 50, I'd be getting ready to retire as mayor," says Nurse, now a City Council member.

Instead, the volatile race that year saw then-St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce leader Rick Baker and City Council member Kathleen Ford go to a runoff.

The results weren't necessarily a surprise in the nine-way primary. Neither were they a given.

Fast-forward eight years.

While a poll released last week by the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership suggests Ford is headed to another runoff, this time with former City Council member Bill Foster, St. Petersburg political experts caution that any result is possible.

In a race where nearly 13,000 ballots have been cast early — and where 10 candidates could be splitting 45,000 votes or fewer overall — one key voting bloc could easily swing the election, they say.

How?

"In this particular field, anything can happen," says Sue Brett, who managed Larry Williams' 2001 mayoral campaign.

• • •

In many ways, Ford, 52, enters the final week of the primary in the most comfortable position.

She led both the downtown partnership poll with 22 percent support, and an earlier St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll.

Ford also has the benefit of running a citywide mayoral campaign in 2001.

But it's two other factors that may give her the biggest advantage, political observers say.

First, she's the only woman in the field of 10 candidates.

"It makes her stand out," says local political scientist Darryl Paulson. "No doubt it's an advantage for her."

Second, her message is such a contrast to the other viable candidates.

"Her message is very clear," says Nurse. "She wants to change how things are done."

That, Nurse says, attracts a whole subset of voters. And other than Ed Helm, 64, who ran against Baker in 2005, she's not competing with anyone for those votes.

Compare that with candidates like Williams and Foster, who in many ways are competing for the same base.

It's a familiar problem for Williams. In 2001, he fought against Baker for primary votes and finished third, about 220 votes out of the runoff.

"I think I'm in a position to be there" in the top two, Williams, 64, says. "And if I end up in the top two, I think I can win this election."

Geographical divides

Foster, 46, and Ford might tussle for votes in the waterfront communities north of downtown. Both candidates have spent significant time in those neighborhoods and represented those voters while on City Council.

Williams and City Council member Jamie Bennett, 57, could battle over the votes at the southern edge of the city. The two men, who served that part of the city while on the council, live there.

The voters on the west side of the city are a wild card, elected leaders and campaign hands say. All of the major candidates have been campaigning door to door for votes in and around Tyrone, but it's difficult to identify any one candidate with an obvious advantage.

Geographically speaking, that leaves Midtown, where Deveron Gibbons' chances likely rest.

Gibbons, 36, is the lone African-American candidate, and he was born and raised in the area now called Midtown.

African-Americans make up 20.6 percent of city registered voters, according to the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Office.

Gibbons' campaign headquarters is on 34th Street S, and his campaign has highlighted the endorsement of more than 40 black ministers.

Nurse, whose council district includes much of Midtown, says that in some neighborhoods if another Gibbons sign goes up, "the whole neighborhood might sink."

If Gibbons can turn out the African-American vote in large numbers, it will be difficult for him not to make the top two, experts say.

"Somebody like Deveron Gibbons can and should capitalize on that racial component," Paulson says.

Publicly, Gibbons has downplayed the significance of race in the election. "I'm trying to represent all citizens," he says. "The African-American community is important. I think they want the same things as any other citizens across the city."

The case for a candidate like Scott Wagman, meanwhile, is much less about geography and more about age and issues.

Wagman's campaign has targeted younger voters through the Internet and social networking Web sites like Facebook. He also is targeting progressive and liberal voters throughout the city.

How big of a base that is remains unclear.

In 2001 — the last year there was a mayoral primary — a total of 37,000 people cast votes for mayor, and it required about 8,000 votes to reach the runoff.

Paulson doesn't expect a much higher turnout this year, in part because of the big field of candidates.

"The more crowed the field, the more confused voters are," says Paulson, the president of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club and a former politics and government professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "They tend to stay out of it until the process is narrowed down."

That means the candidates' key voting blocs could prove even more critical, he says.

"This race is very, very similar to 2001," adds Terry Brett, who managed Baker's campaign. "Nine or 10 candidates in the field is pretty scary. The pie gets divvied up so quickly it's tough to carve out your section to get to the final two."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

. Fast facts

Key dates

Primary: Sept. 1

General election: Nov. 3

Meet them

Read more about the candidates at elections.tampabay.com.



The candidates

Nothing is a given in the St. Petersburg mayoral race 08/23/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 23, 2009 1:06am]

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