ST. PETERSBURG — There has never been anything in city history like Rick vs. Rick.
For the first time in the strong-mayor era, two mayors battled each other for City Hall. They were veteran politicians who brought deep pockets, residual anger from the 2016 presidential election and their own animus for each other to this race. What resulted was perhaps the ugliest, and definitely the most expensive, mayoral race in modern St. Petersburg history. The primary was decided by just 70 votes, and after a Hurricane Irma-imposed break, the attack ads flew even faster.
What would the general election be like? Turns out, not that close.
Incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman prevailed on Tuesday night, winning 51.6 percent of the vote and completing the comeback he started in August after spending the summer trailing in fundraising and the polls.
Former Mayor Rick Baker won 48.4 percent of the vote, falling short of his bid for a third term in office.
Cheers erupted at Kriseman’s watch party at Nova 535 as the early returns showed him in control of what had been a closely-contested race for months.
"We can now move forward," the mayor said. "We can now finish what we’ve started."
Kriseman said the city proved its essential spirit with his victory.
"We embrace light and love here," he said. "We drive out darkness and division. This is evident every single day, but especially tonight."
Baker, who served as mayor from 2001-10, conceded just before 8 p.m.
"We ran a very vigorous race that we can be very proud of," he said. "We were honest in our dealings although we were vigorous and we left nothing on the field."
"Unfortunately, we fell short tonight and while I am saddened for the city that we love, St. Pete is still an incredible place."
Returns showed that no one district carried Kriseman to victory. Instead, he rode incremental gains from the primary to a second term. Kriseman especially benefitted from his popularity among voters downtown, who turned out in higher numbers on Tuesday, and he also surged in a precinct that covered part of Lakewood Estates down to Maximo Park.
Emblematic of the small shifts in Kriseman’s favor were three precincts in west St. Petersburg, around Tyrone and Jungle Prada, where the candidates were separated by just 10 votes with relatively high turnout in the August primary. On Tuesday, about 480 more ballots were cast in those areas, and Kriseman pulled out to an 82-vote lead.
The gains added up as Kriseman’s margin of victory rose from 70 votes in the primary to 2,190 votes on Election Day.
Baker once again fared well in wealthy bayside areas around Venetian Isles and Shore Acres. Kriseman locked down the democratic stronghold of Kenwood.
The race drew tighter in Midtown and nearby Childs Park, labeled early as battlegrounds by those watching the campaigns. Baker again won the neighborhoods, home to many of the city’s impoverished black residents, but by thinner margins Tuesday. Despite a slight uptick in turnout, his lead over Kriseman shrunk by half compared to the primary.
Back at Kriseman headquarters, the crowd sang to images of Baker:
"Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, goodbye!"
Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers, a Kriseman supporter, thanked the mayor’s supporters for helping turn around what was a very closely contested race back in the Aug. 29 primary.
"Some people had us counted out in the primary ... but those of you who stood firm showed up and showed out," Flowers said.
The two candidates likely raised more than $3 million dollars in the race, shattering previous records for a mayor’s race in the Sunshine City. The final tally won’t be known until next week. All that money led to a flurry of mailers and television and radio ads, many of them negative.
Baker’s campaign labeled Kriseman as incompetent and repeatedly blamed the city’s 2015-16 sewage crisis on his mismanagement. Seamless Florida, a Baker political-action committee, also ran a TV ad that brought up the 2001 arrest of Kriseman’s chief of staff, Kevin King, who was accused of soliciting underage girls. He was never convicted of the charges. A judge sealed the records. King has declined to comment on the case or its disposition.
Aside from portraying Baker as an ally of Republican President Donald Trump, Kriseman’s campaign also hit the former mayor hard on his stance on climate change. Baker said he believed man has played a role in a changing climate, but he didn’t know how much of a role. Kriseman painted Baker as a climate change denier.
As the ads went, so did the forums and often explosive arguments exchanged on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Both sides traded accusations and hyperbole with supporters going off on rants.
Among actual issues, the city’s two-year sewage crisis dominated much of the campaign. Before the primary, the City Council approved a $326 million consent decree, giving Baker fodder to blame Kriseman for the imminent raise in utility rates. And in late October, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission delivered a final report saying the city committed 89 felonies while discharging up to 1 billion gallons of waste — 200 million gallons of which ended up above ground, flowing into neighborhoods and the Tampa Bay.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe declined to pursue charges because no individual city employees were named in the report. Kriseman supporters questioned the political timing of the FWC report, just as they did when a draft report surfaced in July that blamed the crisis on recent decisions made during the Kriseman administration and a lack of investment in the city’s sewer system going back two decades, to the Baker era.
With all the back and forth about sewage, neither Kriseman or Baker spent much time talking about their vision of the future. Kriseman’s tagline of "moving forward, not backward," was short on specifics. Baker talked a lot about his past record as mayor. And both Ricks clearly preferred to rip each other to shreds rather than offer aspirational messages.
"It wasn’t always pleasant, to put it mildly," Kriseman said to his supporters’ cheers.
Part of their mutual antipathy might have stemmed from a deep familiarity. Kriseman and Baker have known each other for the better part of two decades professionally. They both won their first election on the same night in March 2001 when Baker won his first term as mayor and Kriseman was elected to the City Council.
After his victory, the re-elected mayor called for healing in a city torn asunder by politics.
"It is time for this community to come together," Kriseman said. " We cannot meet the many challenges that remain if we are divided."
Times staff writers Zachary T. Sampson, Nathaniel Lash and Langston Taylor contributed to this report.