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Big names, big contributors taking sides in St. Petersburg's mayoral battle

ST. PETERSBURG —The highest-profile mayoral race in city history has seen big crowds drawn to fundraisers and rallies for both Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker.

But who are the heavy hitters — the biggest names and the fattest wallets — supporting?

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg, team president Brian Auld and other team owners and executives have donated big bucks to Kriseman. Democratic fundraiser and developer Craig Sher, LGBT leaders like Brian Longstreth and a bevy of Democratic elected officials are also in the incumbent's corner. So are big Democratic donors like Frank Brunckhorst of Sarasota, whose family founded Boar's Head deli products, attorney Joseph Saunders and restaurateur Robert Sanderson, co-owner of Stillwaters Tavern.

Baker is being supported by all four living former mayors. He's also got the backing of business leaders like Jabil Circuit CEO Mark Mondello, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce chairman Greg Holden, developer Darryl LeClair and financial executive Deveron Gibbons. And Baker has support from big GOP names such as former ambassador and Republican fundraiser Mel Sembler, former Gov. Jeb Bush and former U.S. Rep. David Jolly.

Baker, a prominent Republican, has said the traditionally nonpartisan race should stay that way. But he and Kriseman, a Democrat, are drawing most of their support from their respective sides of the political aisle.

There are, however, some notable crossovers:

State Rep. Wengay Newton, a former St. Petersburg City Council member who served with both Baker and Kriseman, is an enthusiastic Baker supporter — and a Democrat. It was Newton who introduced Baker when he announced his candidacy and at a recent fundraiser.

"In my eight years on council, there was only one mayor who actually did something for the area of greatest need, which I grew up in," Newton said at the May 23 fundraiser. "So this is not a political thing for me, it's personal."

Chris Eaton, an arts supporter and Democratic donor who is gay, also supports Baker. The former mayor, however, has been criticized for not supporting the gay community while in office from 2001 to 2010.

"Rick Baker is keenly aware that the city looks and feels a bit different since he was first elected in 2001," Eaton said. "He has stated an understanding of the importance of the LGBT community to his belief in a seamless city. I always think you should judge someone by what they are saying currently."

Democratic council member Jim Kennedy is backing Baker, as is former Mayor David Fischer, a registered Democrat. The lone Republican on the council, Ed Montanari, is an enthusiastic Baker supporter.

Kriseman might not have any high-profile Republicans backing him — former state Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland has donated money but she's now an independent— but he does have the county's top Democrats in his corner.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist heartily endorsed Kriseman at his campaign office opening last week, calling him "the greatest mayor our city has ever had."

Kriseman has the backing of several Democrats on the City Council: Amy Foster, Darden Rice, Charlie Gerdes and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman. He also has the support of statewide party figures such as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and former Florida CFO Alex Sink.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch is another supporter, saying Friday that city-county relations have never been better than under Kriseman.

"The relationship between the county and the city has not always been a good one," Welch said without mentioning Baker by name. "We've had commissioners and mayors yelling at each other. A lot of unproductive time."

The city's LGBT community — especially the activists — are firmly in the mayor's camp.

"The Baker administration was arguably the most unwelcoming and repressive in our city's history," said Susan McGrath, president of the Stonewall Democrats at a May 10 news conference. She noted that when Baker was mayor, he never attended the St. Pete Pride Parade and never signed a single proclamation in support of the LGBT community.

Tonight, Baker will leave the Sunshine City to hold a fundraiser in Clearwater. The invite lists several prominent north Pinellas Republicans: attorney Brian Aungst Jr., restaurateur Frank Chivas, beach developer Joe Burdette, former Mayor Frank Hibbard and current state legislators such as state Rep. Kathleen Peters, Sen. Jack Latvala and his son, state Rep. Chris Latvala.

But the most intriguing of all may be the holdouts:

City Council members Karl Nurse and Steve Kornell, both Democrats, haven't endorsed anyone. Kornell has said he will stay out of the race. Nurse said earlier this month that he will endorse somebody shortly before the Aug. 29 primary.

The Rev. Louis Murphy Sr., the influential pastor at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, also hasn't tipped his hand. That's important because Midtown, the center of the city's black community, will likely play a crucial role in the election. Baker needs to do very well in Midtown if he wants to win.

Nor can Kriseman afford to lose too much support there. Earlier this month, Kriseman released a list of his Midtown supporters that included state Sen. Darryl Rouson, Pinellas School Board member Rene Flowers and the Rev. Clarence Williams, pastor of Greater Mount Zion AME Church.

Times staff writer Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

Big names, big contributors taking sides in St. Petersburg's mayoral battle 05/31/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 30, 2017 9:47pm]
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