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Some lessons learned in St. Petersburg City Council election

ST. PETERSBURG — Off-year city elections are always subdued affairs. Tuesday was no different.

About 14.5 percent of voters cast ballots in four City Council races — about half the turnout two years ago for the mayoral race.

Those who did participate form the electoral bedrock of a city with 156,517 registered voters, and the results offer a few lessons.

Lesson 1: Party politics don't mean much

The Democratic/Republican dichotomy that dominates national and state politics doesn't apply much to St. Petersburg elections.

Republican Bob Kersteen ran a partisan race against opponent Charlie Gerdes, a Democrat. In what is officially a nonpartisan election, Kersteen was endorsed by a long list of Republicans, took party money and ran ads on conservative talk radio linking a vote for his opponent to a vote for congressional Democrats and the national debt.

Did injecting partisan politics affect the outcome? Nope — and it usually doesn't.

St. Petersburg is a city where 80 percent of precincts have more registered Democrats than Republicans. Yet somehow the city keeps electing Republicans as mayor, including Bill Foster.

In the race for District 1, Gerdes won 55.6 percent of the vote. Gerdes' margin slipped to 53.7 in precincts where Republicans outnumber Democrats, but he still won most of those.

Gerdes got 55.4 percent of the vote in precincts with more than 50 percent Democrats. Yet Gerdes' percentage of the vote drops below 50 percent in the nine precincts with 80 percent Democrats, making party identification an unreliable indicator of voter behavior.

"In municipal elections, you're talking to engaged voters who know what the issues are," said Shari Hazlett, co-campaign manager for Gerdes. "And they aren't partisan issues."

Lesson 2: Incumbency counts

Incumbents have won 13 out of the last 14 City Council races, including all three this year. The last time a challenger upset an incumbent was in 2005. Go back to 1983 and 30 of 33 incumbents have won. Six of those incumbents, including Steve Kornell this year, had no opposition. Incumbents with opposition still won by an average of 62 percent.

"Incumbents win because these are local races," said David Fischer, a former St. Petersburg mayor. "They're not getting national headlines every night on TV. So the voters don't know the candidates as well. People tend not to want to rock the boat when it comes to local incumbents."

Which is why Foster's endorsement of Gershom Faulkner against incumbent Wengay Newton looks all the more risky.

"I was caught by surprise when he did that," said Fischer, who didn't endorse City Council candidates as mayor from 1991 to 2001. "Regardless of who is elected, as mayor you still have to work with that person."

Lesson 3: Don't underestimate Wengay Newton

Faulkner lost to Newton in 2007 by four percentage points but says he heard so many complaints in establishment circles he thought Newton was vulnerable.

But Newton won 66 percent of the vote, three points behind incumbent Bill Dudley, who faced a weaker opponent.

Newton also dominated African-American precincts — both men are black — sweeping all 26 by an average margin of 79 percent. Kornell got 77 percent of the same vote but had no opponent. And Newton still won 63 percent of the vote in majority white precincts.

Foster and the establishment will have to deal with Newton now, said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP. "Other council members should take note and notice that he was heavily supported and understand that they need to be on the same page," said Sykes.

"This election puts Wengay Newton at the forefront of city politics."

Lesson 4. Money matters.

Hardly a news flash here. The three candidates who won against opposition also raised the most cash. Kornell raised $40,000, much of that early, scaring away opposition.

Fifteen of the last 18 council races have been won by the candidate raising the most cash.

"For some reason, we don't raise the money you see in Tampa," Hazlett said. "But you have nearly 160,000 registered voters here, making it larger than any state House district. It's a lot of area to cover and people to talk to. Winning depends on having a good field plan, and for that, you need volunteers and money."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Some lessons learned in St. Petersburg City Council election 11/11/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 12, 2011 12:32am]
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