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St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster looks vulnerable

It is fair to say that history is on Bill Foster's side.

He is the incumbent, the establishment, the status quo. And if there is one trend in the recent history of St. Petersburg mayoral elections, it is an infatuation with the safe pick.

In a city where registered Republicans make up only 28 percent of the electorate, St. Pete elections still typically go the conservative, sensible, stay-the-course route.

So, yes, it is probably fair to say history is on Foster's side.

But is anything else?

Not to be too facetious, but the first half of 2013 has not been kind to the mayor. The Pier debate has grown uglier. The Rays stadium situation has remained stagnant. The petty arguing in City Council meetings has become tiresome.

And the polls that once showed Foster with strong favorability ratings in the city have been trending downward for more than six months.

I still think Foster is the candidate to beat in November, but in a St. Pete Polls survey commissioned last week by SaintPetersBlog.com, the mayor trailed both Kathleen Ford and Rick Kriseman in head-to-head matchups.

That all sounds interesting, but I'm not yet sure it is remarkable. The nonpartisan primary, which whittles the field to two candidates, is nearly three months away, and so there is plenty of time for further shifts.

The obvious takeaway is that Foster is vulnerable. Certainly more than Rick Baker was after his first term, and probably more than David Fischer was in either of his re-election bids in the early 1990s.

And this is where things get interesting for the challengers. For 20 years St. Pete has seen a parade of outsiders or blunt-talking opponents taking on a more conservative candidate.

And that strategy of attacking the establishment has never been enough. It didn't work for Dennis McDonald or Ernest Curtsinger in the 1990s, and it didn't work for Ford in either of her two runs in the last decade.

Shaking a fist at City Hall might be irresistible to a small segment of the population, but it doesn't have much stamina in general elections in St. Pete.

In other words, it's okay to be anti-establishment, but you better be pro-something too or voters are not going to feel safe handing you the keys to the city.

"To me, it's what makes St. Pete special,'' said Kriseman. "We have a history of looking past everything else and electing the best candidate in the race. The candidate who brings the most vision and leadership to the city.

"This city is very unique in that respect. It's refreshing in a lot of ways that our citizens look past party affiliations and choose the candidate that best represents them.''

This has been particularly true in the African-American community, where voters have consistently sided with Republicans instead of Democrats in the general election.

That's essentially how Baker beat Ford in 2001, and how Foster beat her in '09.

When I asked Ford about the city's inclination to stick with the status quo, her response centered more on her vision for the future and message of inclusion.

And that's fine, too. Based on the past two decades, voters in St. Petersburg prefer their leaders to be positive and their positions to be moderate.

It worked for Foster in 2009, and it may work for his opponents in 2013.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster looks vulnerable 06/01/13 [Last modified: Saturday, June 1, 2013 8:22pm]

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