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Tuesday's St. Petersburg City Council election his big stakes

ST. PETERSBURG — Last week, City Council candidate Bob Kersteen examined contributions to GOP candidates for president.

"There's $250, $1,000, $2,500, $500 for Rick Perry's campaign," he said. "Here's another $250, $2,500, $200 for Mitt Romney's."

The contributions all came from St. Petersburg residents for a national race to be decided next year.

"That's where the money's going," said Kersteen, who through mid-October had raised $16,331. "These people don't want to put money in local races. Many of them have given to me in the past. But not this year."

All politics may be local, but it doesn't feel that way for seven candidates vying for four City Council seats in Tuesday's St. Petersburg election. They've struggled to get the attention of the city's 156,517 voters, despite crucial, community-defining issues in the balance: the future of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Pier and how to address the continual decline in government revenue.

"Nobody cares about this election," said businessman Scott Wagman, who ran for mayor in 2009. "No one's talking about it. It's pitiful because there are major issues out there."

Still, the political landscape will change Tuesday, and could alter considerably how Mayor Bill Foster deals with the council.

Kersteen is running against attorney Charlie Gerdes for the District 1 seat being vacated by incumbent Herb Polson.

In the Aug. 30 primary, Gerdes won 52 percent of the vote, with Kersteen well behind at 28 percent. If Gerdes wins the general election, expect more discussion on the council about what to do about the Rays.

Gerdes favors allowing the Rays to discuss with Tampa officials the possibilities of moving there. It's his theory that the team will find Hillsborough untenable and then will be more inclined to negotiate to remain in St. Petersburg once the lease at Tropicana Field expires in 2027.

Kersteen, on the other hand, wants to negotiate with the Rays only if the club opens its books. In Major League Baseball, that's pretty much a deal killer. This would put Kersteen solidly behind Foster, who has blocked the Rays from negotiating any stadium deal outside the limits of St. Petersburg.

Though Gerdes led the primary vote decisively, that was restricted to District 1 voters, so Kersteen hopes he can gain broader appeal with the citywide electorate. He's picked up some endorsements since then, including from the Police Benevolent Association and Foster. Still, he lags $20,000 behind what Gerdes has raised.

How to handle budget shortfalls is another major difference. Kersteen wants to keep cutting services, an approach Foster has so far favored. Gerdes said he would consider dipping into reserves or approving a small increase in property taxes, joining a growing bloc of votes on the council of Leslie Curran, Karl Nurse and Steve Kornell who have said they should at least discuss revenue.

Aside from wanting Foster to be more open and transparent, Gerdes doesn't disagree with him on much else and says the mayor is doing a good job.

In a rematch of the 2007 District 7 race, Wengay Newton hopes to beat back a challenge from Gershom Faulkner. As in 2007, Faulkner has support from much of the political establishment, including the PBA, the Pinellas Realtor Organization, and Foster.

But Newton is an incumbent and has won grudging respect. "There's no one more dedicated than Wengay," said council member Jeff Danner. "… Everyone knows him. That's going to help.

Faulkner is reserved and says he'd try hard to build consensus. Newton openly disagrees with Foster and prides himself on being the lone vote against key administration proposals, such as building a $50 million Pier and the budget.

If Kersteen wins, and Faulkner upsets Newton, Foster wins big, getting two candidates he endorsed on the council. "I'm looking for someone who can build bridges," Foster said.

Faulkner and Kersteen would join a pro-Foster bloc on the council that includes Chairman Jim Kennedy and, mostly likely, Bill Dudley, a well-known former high school teacher running for re-election in District 3. His opponent is political novice Brent Hatley, producer of the Bubba the Love Sponge radio show, and Dudley is widely expected to win.

If Newton wins re-election and Gerdes wins, they would be part of a council with frequent Foster critics in Danner, Curran, Nurse and — presumably — Kornell, who is running to keep his District 5 seat. Because his opponent dropped out, the only way Kornell can lose is if a majority of voters ask for a new election.

Regardless, come Wednesday, the council will get at least one new face, which could be plenty of change.

"One person, in a group of eight, can make a big difference," said Nurse. "It could be enough to give the city new direction."

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

Tuesday's St. Petersburg City Council election his big stakes 11/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 5, 2011 1:24am]

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