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To become St. Petersburg mayor, Jamie Bennett must try to be more than 'nice guy'

ST. PETERSBURG — Jamie Bennett is the longest-serving member of the City Council, a confidant of the mayor and a leader on homeless issues in Pinellas County, but his most celebrated accomplishment has little to do with policy.

Simply put, he is known for being nice.

A sunny everyman with an aptitude for optimistic platitudes and gentle reprimands, Bennett has made few adversaries during his three-term stint at City Hall, an uncommon feat for any longtime politician.

He won over ideological rivals, neighborhood leaders and City Hall insiders with compromises and encouragements. He befriended community activists, adopting their causes and guiding them through the legislative process.

But to become the next mayor of St. Petersburg, Bennett will have to convince voters he can do more than play well with others.

Already, it has been a tough sell.

He has been unable to persuade political allies to return past favors. No former or sitting elected officials in St. Petersburg have endorsed him, and his frequent fundraisers have attracted only a few dozen supporters each. His own campaign manager recently questioned whether Bennett was "everyone's second choice."

"I'm running against myself," Bennett said. "I don't think there is anybody who has worked harder as a council member to be everywhere, and I've been doing that eight solid years."

The son of an Episcopalian minister and a former Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, Bennett's ambition and congeniality have carried him far.

He was a sweaty lawn man with a booming laugh when he ran for the City Council in 2001. Years of anonymous grunt work on the City Beautiful Commission convinced voters of his commitment to civic improvement.

He offered his fellow council members camaraderie, attending their neighborhood cleanups and rallying for new dog parks in their districts. During his two stints as council chairman, he called for cooperative relationships between council members and Mayor Rick Baker's staff and discouraged public bickering.

"He set a tone that we were allies, not adversaries," said council member Karl Nurse.

Bennett took up unpopular causes and rallied on behalf of the powerless.

In his first standoff against Baker, he supported the preservation of Albert Whitted Airport while business leaders called for development on the waterfront site. Voters sided with Bennett, opting to keep the small municipal property.

He served as the first chairman of the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Network, casting a spotlight on poverty by spending a night at a local shelter, demanding more affordable housing and criticizing the administration when it slashed the tents of nearly two dozen street dwellers.

"He is certainly the social conscience of the council," said council member Herb Polson.

In his most significant legislative accomplishment, he got reluctant administrators to embrace new green policies and convert to energy-efficient lights and vehicles. As a result, St. Petersburg was dubbed Florida's first Green City by the Florida Green Building Coalition.

Yet his diplomatic inclinations have also frustrated some progressive leaders who hoped Bennett would take a more consistent stance on social and environmental issues.

He sided with the mayor on curbside recycling, declaring it too expensive and impractical. He voted to pass ordinances that targeted the street homeless.

As council chairman, he shied away from taking a stand on the Tampa Bay Rays' plan to dredge and fill Tampa Bay and build a new waterfront stadium. As a mayoral candidate, he said he won't support a stadium along the downtown shore.

That his amiable persona is his most noted attribute has not gone unnoticed, especially among former supporters who question whether Bennett has used his time in city government wisely. Bennett, his critics argue, can point to few original ideas or individual accomplishments.

"There isn't a better backslapper local politician. He's just that guy," said Kevin King, a political consultant and family friend. "But I don't know if Jamie has been quite as proactive as he could have been. He has had eight years on City Council, and there is not a whole lot he can take credit for."

Bennett said his moderate leanings are a strength, not a weakness. He has pledged to bring few substantial changes to City Hall, a positive for those pleased with Baker's focus on economic development and education.

"The city at this juncture needs someone who knows how the city works and how we can move forward with what we have," he said.

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

>>Fast facts

About the job

St. Petersburg's mayor is elected to a four-year term and is paid $162,314. As the city's chief administrator, the mayor oversees an operating budget of roughly $217 million and 2,800 municipal employees.

Key dates

Sept. 1: primary Nov. 3: general election

Jamie Bennett, 56, City Council member, part-time instructor at Eckerd College.

Education: bachelor of science in biology, Stetson University, DeLand, 1974; master's in arts and teaching, Stetson, 1976.

Family: wife Aimee, three children.

Web site: onestpetersburg.com.

To become St. Petersburg mayor, Jamie Bennett must try to be more than 'nice guy' 05/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 4:46pm]
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