St. Petersburg mayoral candidates make final weekend push

ST. PETERSBURG — After nearly five months and scores of candidate forums, after polls and political sparring, after candidate missteps and dozens of campaign mailers, the longest and most expensive race for mayor has yet to yield a front-runner.

Clarity will come Tuesday, when voters whittle the crowded field of 10 to a final pair of candidates who will face off in the Nov. 3 general election.

The candidates all vowed to fight to the finish.

Deveron Gibbons unleashed an army of volunteers Saturday across voting precincts in Midtown, armed with Gibbons signs and wearing white Gibbons for mayor T-shirts.

Scott Wagman hosted a series of meet-and-greets this weekend, calling supporters and potential voters in between. He spent lunchtime Saturday packaging mail pieces for voter canvassing today and ahead of the Tuesday primary.

Business owner Larry Williams scheduled a rally this afternoon and released an attack ad targeting rival Bill Foster.

Foster and Kathleen Ford had volunteers wave signs on street corners and go door to door to drum up support.

The weekend, in other words, saw a rush of excitement that has been mostly lacking throughout the campaign. That the candidates never did enough to distinguish themselves from the pack has been a common complaint.

"There are two problems that they started with," said Ramsey McLauchlan, chairman of the Pinellas County Democratic Committee. "You have some overarching issues such as crime and the economy, but they are not real specific and they are not things that people can grasp. The other thing is, none of them stood out. Everyone says, 'I am an environmentalist,' so how do you make a decision between them?"

What's more, when the candidates did stand out, a gaffe was usually to blame.

Wagman, a former paint manufacturing owner, made waves when he vowed to replace police Chief Chuck Harmon and Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, promises that quickly raised questions about his political sensibilities.

Gibbons, a corporate executive, was criticized for having two children out of wedlock and a questionable driving record.

Retired lawyer Ed Helm, 64, vacationed in Costa Rica, missing a handful of important candidate forums. He called it his biggest mistake during a recent candidate forum.

And then there was the time police had to escort Paul Congemi, a 52-year-old advocate for the homeless, from a KFC restaurant after he was said to be loud and aggressive with employees.

But no one had it worse than council member Jamie Bennett, who picked two consultants with a history of previous campaign misdeeds. The decision was a ticking bomb that exploded in April, when Bennett said he fired campaign manager Peter Schorsch for passing out tickets to the city's baseball suite with campaign literature.

Schorsch took it hard, shooting back with a litany of accusations that he and Bennett, 57, had engaged in dirty tricks against their rivals and other unscrupulous acts. Bennett denied it, but never seemed to rise above the questions about his judgement or the allegations.

The candidates set out to make this the most tech-savvy race ever. Many candidates created Twitter and Facebook accounts to socialize with voters, but most quickly abandoned the Internet efforts.

Wagman, 56, was the exception.

With the least name recognition of any major candidate, he built a steady following of technocrats. Wagman campaign adviser Larry Biddle said Saturday the campaign had added 640 online followers just in the past week or so. Biddle estimates Wagman's message on the social networking site Facebook is now reaching 284,000 people.

Wagman also hosted a series of house parties to meet individually with the city's elite and gain their trust, which helped him rise from obscurity.

Gibbons, meanwhile, turned to a wealth of rich and influential friends, scoring endorsements from Gov. Charlie Crist, state Rep. Darryl Rouson and dozens of other movers and shakers who encouraged voters to give the first-time candidate a chance.

But in other ways, Gibbons, 36, kept the lowest profile of any major candidate. He shied away from some interviews with local newspapers and television reporters. He dodged questions during forums, favoring charming stories over policy explanations. He touted a four-point plan that touched on public safety, no new taxes, creating jobs and open government. He promised to release detailed reports on each, but only delivered on public safety.

On Saturday, 40 Gibbons volunteers canvassed for votes south of Central Avenue. Javontae Wright, 26, walked with Antoine Hughes, 45, and Montrae Waiters, 38, along 15th Avenue S.

The trio knocked on doors of registered voters, reminding them of the upcoming election.

"Deveron has some fresh new ideas," said Hughes, who met Gibbons through a mentoring program called 5,000 Role Models of Excellence. "We're ready for a change."

Foster, 46, and Ford, 52, both lawyers and former council members, seemed to have the easiest hills to climb of the candidates. Both only had to live down the worst of their reputations and showcase their best attributes.

Foster, a conservative remembered for railing against Sunday beer purchases and linking the Columbine High School massacre to Charles Darwin, spent the campaign talking about constitutional rights and equality.

Ford, who has been dogged by accusations that she was divisive and acrimonious as a council member, avoided direct criticism of her political antithesis in Mayor Rick Baker and instead focused on specific plans to cut the city budget and lower property tax rates.

Both ran grass roots campaigns, relying on past supporters to wave signs and chat them up to friends.

"It is very unpredictable," said Ford. "No one knows how this will turn out."

With just days to go, Wagman, Ford, Foster and Gibbons seemed to be the candidates to beat.

Foster, who led in the most recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll, has been put on the defensive by a series of last-minute attacks.

Three political advertisements and an automated phone call are attacking Foster's record on panhandling and government spending.

One of the advertisements was from Williams, 64, a former council member. He was a charming presence in the race, cracking jokes and taking the most pro-stadium stance against the candidates. But his livelier opponents seemed to drown him out.

Restaurant owner John Warren, 60, and student Richard Eldridge, 47, had ideas, but their lackluster campaigns raised questions about their commitment to running for office.

At Wagman headquarters on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, Wagman, campaign manager Mitch Kates and volunteers huddled around a conference table Saturday organizing for the home stretch.

They never did a sign waving, they said, which has been a hallmark of traditional campaigns.

They laughed about driving past Foster and Williams both waving signs on Friday.

"They're waving to cars, with people who may or may not vote," Kates said. "That made my day.

"We're talking to people who are actually going to be voting," Kates said. "And they're waving to cars."

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

. Fast Facts

Key dates

Primary election: Tuesday.

General election: Nov. 3.

On the Web

Read more about the mayoral candidates at elections.tampa bay.com.

St. Petersburg mayoral candidates make final weekend push 08/29/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 30, 2009 5:51pm]

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