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Poll shows St. Petersburg mayoral race a tossup among the 11 candidates, so far

ST. PETERSBURG — They've visited churches, shaken hands at neighborhood picnics, held coffee hours and papered street corners with posters proclaiming their candidacy.

But after months of public forums, campaign mailers and newspaper stories, the candidates for mayor have failed to engage voters or harvest a significant following.

Sixty-one percent of voters do not know who they would support if the Sept. 1 mayoral primary were held today, a new St. Petersburg Times poll shows.

Absentee ballots go out in less than three weeks. But the results indicate the St. Petersburg mayor's race is still wide open.

Former City Council member Kathleen Ford has a slight lead, with 10 percent of the vote, according to the poll, which surveyed 600 registered city voters June 11-16. The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Former City Council member Bill Foster and corporate executive Deveron Gibbons each received 8 percent, followed by 4 percent each for former City Council member Larry Williams and real estate investor Scott Wagman. City Council member Jamie Bennett received 3 percent, while political novice Richard Eldridge received 1 percent.

"The election seems far enough away that voters are not tuned in," said Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "There just isn't a galvanizing issue right now that is driving people."

Voters of all backgrounds are uncommitted — women, men, whites, blacks, the young and the elderly.

The poll also shows voters are not ready to name a favored runnerup. Seventy-five percent of respondents said they did not know who their second choice for mayor would be.

In that field, Ford garnered 6 percent of the vote, Foster trailed with 5 percent and Williams and Bennett each received 3 percent. Wagman and Gibbons got 2 percent of the vote.

McLauchlan said she didn't think the large field played a role in voters' inability to choose.

"I just think they are not paying attention right now," she said. "After July 13, when those ballots start dropping unexpectedly on people's doors, I think people might realize, 'Hey, I have to start making decisions here.' "

Gibbons was the only candidate with any sort of support block. Nearly 30 percent of black voters said they favored him.

On the other hand, Gibbons, the only African-American in the race, fared poorly among white voters, earning 2 percent of the vote, the lowest of any major candidate.

"I'm not sure about the significance of that," said Gibbons, 36, an Amscot vice president with long-standing community ties. "I'm happy with the response we are getting from the entire community and throughout the city."

Overall, 46 percent of voters said they are somewhat satisfied with the field, results that attest to the public's general sense of dispassion over the candidates.

"It means we have a lot of work to do," said Foster, 46, a lawyer. "In spite of our efforts to put signs up and get a buzz in the community, people are still doing their due diligence."

Ford, who finished second in the 2001 mayoral race, said her reputation as a government watchdog helped her rise to the top of the pack.

"Folks understand that I was opposed to the secretive process for the new stadium and that I wrote a charter amendment to give people the opportunity to vote for the use of public assets or dollars for any new professional sports facilities," said Ford, 52, a lawyer who provided legal advice to opponents of the Tampa Bay Rays' failed waterfront stadium plan.

Wagman, a 56-year-old first-time candidate with a business background, said he was thrilled with the results.

"Not only is there no frontrunner, but the politicians with a past are flopping," he said. "This tells me that the city is ready for new, unencumbered, fresh leadership."

Williams, 64, who also ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2001, was the only candidate to express concern. "Well, that's a not good place to be, is it?" he said of his single-digit support.

However, Williams, a latecomer to the race, didn't ignore the opportunity to taunt his rivals, most of whom announced in 2008. "It is startling that they didn't do better," he said.

Bennett, 56, whose campaign has seen multiple setbacks, including the dismissal of his campaign manager amid ethics complaints, said he would continue to reach out to voters by going door to door.

"It seems like this race has been going on forever," he said. "But it just shows you that a lot of people have yet to engage."

Despite public perception that the campaign season is still young, nearly 40 percent of the city's 161,000 registered voters will soon receive an absentee ballot.

Monday is the deadline for any new candidates to enter the race.

Restaurateur John Warren, 59, became the 11th and latest entrant Friday. "I see good people, with experiences and passions," he said. "But neither I nor the many people I've talked to are excited by the choice."

It's unclear if Warren can make an impact this late in the race.

His challengers are all set in the next few weeks to unleash a tsunami of television advertisements, billboards and campaign mailers.

John Long, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, is among the undecided.

He said he will rely on the candidates' performances at upcoming mayoral forums to help him make up his mind. "I am still not comfortable with everybody," he said.

But some critics said the candidates need to do something to jazz up the race.

During a recent discussion at the St. Petersburg Democratic Club, no one spoke in favor of any candidate. Member Hal Alterman was appalled.

"You are talking about an activist community. If the people here aren't impassioned, then how do you expect the general population to be?" he said. "You've got to raise your game, folks."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

St. Petersburg mayoral elections

About the St. Petersburg mayor's race

The 11 candidates for mayor are: City Council member Jamie Bennett, 56; homeless advocate Paul Congemi, 52; pre-med student Richard Eldridge, 47; former council member Kathleen Ford, 52; former council member Bill Foster, 46; business executive Deveron Gibbons, 36; political activist Alex Haak, 77; political activist Ed Helm, 64; real estate investor Scott Wagman, 56; restaurateur John Warren, 59; and former council member Larry Williams, 64.

Key dates: The primary is Sept. 1. The top two candidates will face off in the general election Nov. 3.

Mayoral hopefuls

Want to know more about the mayoral candidates and their positions? Go to tampabay.com/mayor.

FAST FACTS

St. Petersburg mayoral elections

About the
St. Petersburg mayor's race

The 11 candidates for mayor are: City Council member Jamie Bennett, 56; homeless advocate Paul Congemi, 52; pre-med student Richard Eldridge, 47; former council member Kathleen Ford, 52; former council member Bill Foster, 46; business executive Deveron Gibbons, 36; political activist Alex Haak, 77; political activist Ed Helm, 64; real estate investor Scott Wagman, 56; restaurateur John Warren, 59; and former council member Larry Williams, 64.

Key dates: The primary is Sept. 1. The top two candidates will face off in the general election Nov. 3.

Poll shows St. Petersburg mayoral race a tossup among the 11 candidates, so far 06/25/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 5:10pm]

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