Monday, December 11, 2017

In St. Petersburg's battle of the Ricks, past is prologue

ST. PETERSBURG— Mayor Rick Kriseman's narrow victory in Tuesday's primary energized his base and handed him momentum in the race after trailing in the polls and fundraising.

Meanwhile former Mayor Rick Baker, who shot out of the gate back in May, must now recover after underperforming in a race that some thought he could win outright in the primary.

SUNSHINE CITY SHOWDOWN: Keep up with the Tampa Bay Times coverage of the St. Petersburg mayoral race.

As the highs and lows of primary night fade, how will the campaigns shift over the next ten weeks before the Nov. 7 general election?

Kriseman did not respond to requests for an interview on Wednesday. But his campaign staff and supporters showed little appetite to discard a successful formula: tying Baker, a Jeb Bush-style Republican, to the current GOP standard-bearer, President Donald Trump.

"Everywhere I go, every day, I hear people talking about the border wall, barring transgender service people from serving," said Pinellas County Democratic chairwoman Susan McGrath. "These are personal values. And there's nothing more important to people than their personal values."

PRIMARY ANALYSIS: Unpacking the primary: Where did Kriseman and Baker get votes — and where can they get more?

Former Mayor Bill Foster, who lost to Kriseman in the 2013 runoff after finishing first in a three-way primary, said that Baker is an awkward position. Condemning Trump would cost him some Republican voters. But keeping silent hasn't helped, either.

"Trump has hurt Baker, some of the issues Mr. Trump has had," Foster said. "I think it's very dirty. He's never met Trump. It's guilt by association.

"But it puts Baker in a weird spot. He's going to have to figure that one out."

JOHN ROMANO: St. Pete mayoral race now goes to overtime

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So far, Baker is sticking with a familiar defense: The mayor of St. Petersburg is a non-partisan office that should stay that way.

"I'm going to continue to reject the attempt to inject Washington-style poisonous politics into St. Petersburg," Baker said Wednesday. "It's done damage to our city. I understand why he does it. He doesn't have anything else to run on."

That's not so, said Kriseman campaign manager Jacob Smith. There are local issues to talk about that are relevant to Trump's impact on politics. There's climate change, Smith said, and what he called the conflict of interest between Baker winning office and then handling city business involving his current boss, Bill Edwards.

"The next ten weeks will really be about the two mayor's records," Smith said. "We saw a lot of backroom behavior, Trump-like behavior during Baker's time as mayor."

RELATED: Big money brings in few extra voters in St. Pete primary

University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor emeritus Darryl Paulson, who studies government and local politics, said it would be a mistake for both Baker and Kriseman to keep plodding on well-trod ground as their campaigns head into November.

"More of the same thing is going to be detrimental to both candidates," said Paulson, who has followed city elections for four decades. "Voters in St. Petersburg know both of these individuals. We know who the Democrat is. We know who the Republican is. What neither of them did is convince people: This is why you should elect me."

For Kriseman, he said, too much emphasis on partisan politics could backfire if voters tire of hearing their mayor talk about national issues instead of local issues.

"It's not a terribly strong message for an incumbent," he said. "'Vote for me, I'm the Democrat.' St. Petersburg voters are used to their local elections being non-partisan."

RELATED: Legally, St. Pete mayoral race is nonpartisan. Truthfully, party matters

But Tom Eldon, Kriseman's pollster, said his candidate has the pulse of the city, which has 30,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

"We need to continue communicating the message of a progressive mayor with a vision versus Rick Baker, a Republican (former) mayor who pretty much has a locked-door agenda he doesn't want to talk much about," Eldon said.

At some point, Eldon said Baker will have to address flashpoints like white supremacist violence in Charlottesville or pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord or risk further political damage.

Baker said he will continue to talk about what he says is Kriseman's mismanagement of the city's sewer system, pier replacement and economic development in Midtown. But he added:

"We're always going to adjust our campaign," Baker said. "We're not going to be rigid on anything."

So who is right? Will voters tire of partisanship? Or does Tuesday's result demonstrate that voters frustrated by Trump's antics have found a local outlet with which to express their ire?

No surprise, both campaigns see it differently.

"The biggest take away from last night is that a majority of the city said 'no' to incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman just four years after he won by 11 points," said Baker campaign director Nick Hansen.

McGrath didn't buy that. After all, Baker served as mayor from 2001-10. Tuesday's primary could also be seen as a judgment of his time in City Hall as well.

"In any other election that would hold water," she said, "but Rick Baker to some degree is also an incumbent because he was in office much longer."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]

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