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St. Petersburg's incredible shrinking mayor's race

St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Rick Kriseman recently summed up why he's the kind of visionary leader the city needs. • "I'm willing to listen. That's a really important part of being a leader," he boldly declared. "Listening is more than just hearing. It's taking in and processing the information that you're hearing and then acting on it." • Powerful stuff.

Candidate Kathleen Ford has made a point of courting African-American voters, who rejected her by big margins in her first two mayoral campaigns.

"My great-uncles fought with the Irish regiment in the Civil War for the Union," she said by way of introduction at an NAACP forum.

And here's Mayor Bill Foster explaining his leadership on the Pier.

"If I were king for a day I would have given myself the charter ability to put that on the ballot, but under this charter the mayor does not have that ability," said Foster, who supports the Lens design but doesn't like to tell people that.

Call it the incredible shrinking mayor's race.

These three are running to be mayor of the fourth-largest city in Florida, and yet they seem more like candidates for Oldsmar city manager.

In most major Florida cities — Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, Miami, Fort Lauderdale — you'll find mayors widely viewed as potential candidates for statewide office. No one is courting Foster for higher office the way they regularly do with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and used to do with former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.

Some of it may be the nature of St. Pete, with its Midwestern, conservative sensibility.

Residents in this city of nearly 250,000 tend to be wary of audacious ideas, as anyone involved in the original stadium proposal or the Lens can attest. That makes candidates wary of touting big ideas, which is ironic considering that bold and ambitious decisions made nearly a century ago — buying and preserving the waterfront from development — account for much of the city's success today.

Whether you liked him or not, Baker had a clear agenda, and carried it out: focusing on Midtown and a "seamless city" where no area is under-served, for instance, and assorted initiatives to improve local schools.

It helped that Baker constantly held "It's another great day in St. Petersburg!" news conferences to signal that the city had momentum. Buckhorn and former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio never fail an opportunity to publicly tout Tampa's progress.

Foster says he is too "humble" for that. His sporadic news conferences tend to be hastily called affairs to clarify something he said the day before or to walk it back.

A strong mayor can't just be reactive. Legislators are often hamstrung by the priorities of legislative leaders, and Congress is so beset by partisanship that little gets done, but a mayor can be an incubator of ideas.

If you talk to Baker or Iorio or Buckhorn you'll find them brimming with ideas, some plausible and some far-out, to improve most every aspect of their community's quality of life.

Ford, Foster and Kriseman have been campaigning for months, and it's still hard to describe any of their visions for the city or their top priorities with any specificity. Ford clearly wants to shake up City Hall, especially the police department, and Foster and Kriseman apparently want to keep the city on more or less the same course — only Kriseman contends he can do it better.

Surely the candidates can offer up more than critiques of the soundness of the Pier's pilings, barbs about tasteless Krispy Kreme calendars, or unsubstantiated complaints that City Hall is turning away businesses eager to open up near Tropicana Field.

The underwhelming campaign is partly a testament to the strength of the city.

There are big challenges with the Rays, the Pier and underperforming schools. But the city does not have the racial tensions that scarred St. Petersburg in the 1990s, its downtown is bustling and hip, and even some of the stark divisions between different parts of St. Petersburg have ebbed.

That doesn't mean the city merely needs a warm body in the mayor's office.

On Tuesday, voters will narrow the field to two. Neither will be a charisma king or queen. Let's hope, though, that they elevate the general election campaign and debate to the level a great city deserves.

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com.

St. Petersburg's incredible shrinking mayor's race 08/23/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 23, 2013 3:45pm]
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