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Familiar dance, same result in St. Petersburg's mayor's race

Same dance, same result.

For at least the past 20 years, every mayoral election in St. Petersburg has featured a critic of City Hall vs. a candidate preferred by the downtown and business establishment.

In every race, the critic was attacked as divisive, even dangerous. And each time, voters ended up siding with the establishment, albeit sometimes by just a hair.

Kathleen Ford, who lost Tuesday to Bill Foster by something more than a hair, now joins a list that includes Dennis McDonald in 1989 and 1991, Ernest Curtsinger in 1993, Bill Klein in 1997, Ford herself eight years ago, and Ed Helm in 2005.

On top of that, voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly returned four City Council members to office, three of them with more than 70 percent of the vote.

It was a victory for the status quo, and an indirectly favorable verdict on the outgoing mayor, Rick Baker. Maybe that's not surprising — after all, 59 percent of voters polled before the election said they thought the city was on the "right track."

On the other hand …

You can make the case that the difference in Tuesday's election was more anti-Ford than pro-Foster and pro-City Hall.

There's an interesting hint in the pattern of early voting vs. those who waited to vote until Election Day.

Among early voters, Foster held a fairly narrow lead over Ford, less than 2 percentage points.

But of the votes cast in person Tuesday, Foster beat Ford handily, by nearly 10 points.

Why? Is there just something different about traditional, in-person voters? If so, it wasn't evident in the September primary.

More likely, the late voters had more time to be swayed by the closing events of the campaign.

The alleged gaffe of the race, Ford's use of the term "H.N.I.C." (an acronym for "Head Negro in Charge") on a radio show, contributed to last-minute doubts. And maybe all those repeated attacks on her as too "divisive" had a cumulative effect.

Whatever the reasons, Ford had been ahead in a pre-election St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll. She ran close to even in the early voting. But the later that a vote was cast in this race, the more likely it was to be a vote for Foster.

And yet it would be a mistake for Foster to interpret the election as a mandate. He won by a comfortable 5 percentage points, but that translates into a margin of only about 2,500 people. Ford's 47 percent is nothing to dismiss or to ignore — a point that Foster himself acknowledged Tuesday night, but which he will do well to remember every day.

In fact, Foster will find that being mayor is a lot harder than running for mayor. He will have less of a honeymoon than Baker had.

The city's first "strong" mayor, David Fischer, was really the last of the old weak mayors. The second, Baker, dominated by force of personality and political skill — but was greatly helped by a compliant City Council that had yet to catch up with the new form of government.

As the city's third strong mayor, an institution that is no longer a novelty, Foster is likely to have a City Council a little more willing to flex its muscles now that it's out of Baker's shadow (which, frankly, would be a healthy development). Many of his "Foster Formula" ideas (surveillance cameras everywhere?) will provoke opposition. He will have to avoid the temptation to play the victim when he's criticized. Being criticized is the mayor's job.

It's always a mistake to believe, when you win an election, that the voters agreed with what you said — they probably just decided they could stand you a little better than the other candidate.

The city's budget will be tighter than ever. The economy is still bad. Foster will have to wrestle with the future of the waterfront, the Pier, the city's still-disadvantaged areas — and looming over it all, down the road, is the inevitable issue of a baseball stadium.

He will not be able to do it by fiat. But if he is too weak, he'll be run over. He has to be wise, self-effacing, conciliatory, open-minded and willing to compromise, while still being firm enough about his goals to get something done.

Piece of cake, really.

Familiar dance, same result in St. Petersburg's mayor's race 11/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 4, 2009 12:40am]
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