ST. PETERSBURG — At a recent candidate forum, David McKalip said his City Council opponent Darden Rice likes to "crow about" her endorsement from a police union.
But the support has nothing to do with her stance on public safety, he said, "it's based on her undying support to union leaders."
Later in the forum, Rice returned fire: "I'm very proud to be supported by our firefighters and police. And if those endorsements weren't important, I don't know why you sought them."
Exchanges like this make the District 4 City Council contest sound like one long debate between McKalip and Rice, but it's actually a four-person race.
"They feel like they're the only viable candidates," said challenger Richard Eldridge. "And I'm trying to be up there. When they start attacking me I'll be like, 'Cool, yeah.' "
Candidate Carolyn Fries said she doesn't mind letting McKalip and Rice trade blows; she prefers to focus on her own qualifications and goals for the city.
The four make an eclectic group.
McKalip, 48, is a conservative neurosurgeon. Rice, 43, is a registered Democrat and community organizer. Fries, 46, is a mom and entrepreneur with an engineering background. And Eldridge, 51, is a taxi driver with a biology degree.
They're all vying to represent District 4, which extends north of downtown. The top two vote-getters in the Aug. 27 primary face off in the Nov. 5 general election.
Rice has dominated endorsements in the race, getting support from the St. Petersburg Chamber PAC, city unions and others. She has raised more than $63,000 for her campaign, compared with about $32,000 for McKalip, $7,700 for Fries and $200 for Eldridge.
Rice, who has lost other bids for City Council and the Pinellas County Commission, says it's her long record of community work that makes her the best choice. She has held positions with the Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board.
Rice, who is buying a house with her partner in the Crescent Heights neighborhood, said one of her strengths is engaging the community in a way that solves problems. It's a strength sorely needed in local government, she said. She supports a mass-transit vote slated for 2014, saying a one-cent sales tax is worth the economic benefits that light rail and improved bus service would provide.
McKalip complains about a "political class" he says is controlling City Hall. This group takes citizens' money for grandiose projects such as the Lens and the proposed light rail system he derides as a "choo-choo train." He opposes the transit tax.
McKalip, a married father of three who rented an apartment in the Euclid St. Paul's neighborhood after redistricting, wants to cut taxes and utility bills; ease regulations; and generally focus government on core services.
He believes the city's pension fund is underfinanced and could lead St. Petersburg into financial ruin, like various bankrupt cities. He sent an email to city employes inviting them to a forum last week to discuss the issue. This led City Administrator Tish Elston to send out her own missive telling employees there was no cause for alarm. In it, she acknowledged her information "will never sway those who want to liken us to Detroit."
Fries said she's unique in the race because of her technical and business background. She has a degree in mechanical engineering and likes to quote one of her Purdue University professors, who says engineering is a proven approach for solving problems.
Fries, a married mother of four, has started or helped start several high-tech businesses over the years, and estimates they have employed about 30 people in total. She said that shows she's in tune with small businesses, an important economic engine. On the council, she pledges to improve police services and economic development and strengthen neighborhoods.
She also points to her community service, as a PTSA leader at John Hopkins Middle School and as president of the Crescent Lake Neighborhood Association. "I have been living in District 4 for 23 years," she said, "raising my family and serving my neighborhood."
Eldridge, who lives in Crescent Lake and is divorced with two adult children, is in his second race for public office. He ran in the 2009 mayoral primary, receiving less than 1 percent of the vote. He said he's running because he feels a civic responsibility to do his part and fight for issues that he and others think are important. Some examples include eliminating red light cameras and turning the Pier over to a private company.
Asked about his community service background, he often mentions two things: His service in the U.S. Marine Corps and his cumulative donation of 5 gallons of blood.
When he mentioned those things at a Harris Park Neighborhood Association Forum last week, it prompted one of the few moments in the race in which one candidate said something nice to another.
"Thank you, Richard, for your service," Rice told him.