ST. PETERSBURG — The biggest mayoral contest in city history is going primetime.
Mayor Rick Kriseman will debate former Mayor Rick Baker in front of a live television audience July 25 at the Palladium Theater in downtown St. Petersburg. The debate is sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9 along with the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions at St. Petersburg College.
SUNSHINE CITY SHOWDOWN: Keep up with the Tampa Bay Times coverage of the St. Petersburg mayoral race.
The hour-long debate will start at 7 p.m. and be moderated by Times Political Editor Adam C. Smith and Bay News 9 anchor Holly Gregory.
"The tale of two mayors is one of the most substantial and competitive races we've seen in some time," Times Editor Neil Brown said. "The Times has convened mayoral debates in St. Petersburg and Tampa for every race in recent memory and so we're excited to partner with Bay News 9 to bring about a signature conversation in this campaign."
The timing is auspicious: Earlier that day, ten of thousands of mail ballots will start going out to Sunshine City voters for the Aug. 29 primary election.
Kriseman, 54, a Democrat, and Baker, 60, a Republican, will have at least one additional opponent in the nonpartisan mayoral contest.
Jesse Nevel, 27, qualified in the mayoral race. He is running in coordination with another candidate associated with the African People's Socialist Party. Several other potential candidates have announced plans to run for mayor. The exact number who qualify for the ballot won't be known until the qualifying period ends Friday at 5 p.m.
The Times, Bay News 9 and St. Petersburg College invited only Kriseman and Baker to the debate. In the absence of complete local polling, the Times decided to rely on fundraising totals to determine which candidates will participate.
Within a month of Baker's entry into the race, he and Kriseman smashed all previous fundraising records for a St. Petersburg mayoral race. Each has collected more than $500,000. For now, Baker has an edge in campaign cash, both in the amount raised and in cash on hand.
If a candidate gains more than 50 percent of the vote in the August primary, the election is over. If no one can reach that threshold, they'll battle on until Nov. 7.
The two leading candidates haven't appeared in a candidate forum or debate, but have repeatedly jousted in the press.
Kriseman portrays Baker as an out-of-touch Republican who would take the city backward. The incumbent touts his record of inclusion and support of the LGBT community, economic development and resolving longstanding city stalemates over the future of the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg and a replacement for the pier. He frequently ties Baker to national GOP politics, especially President Donald Trump and climate change denial.
Baker charges Kriseman with playing partisan politics in a nonpartisan election. He says his record as mayor from 2001-10 demonstrates his ability to unify an increasingly fractured city along racial and class lines. He also blames Kriseman's lack of leadership for the recent sewage crisis that saw the city release 200 million gallons of sewage since August 2015, drawing attention from state and federal investigators.
The Kriseman campaign issued a statement Tuesday saying the mayor looked forward to discussing his record.
"I look forward to a debate about how we can keep St. Pete moving forward," Kriseman said. "My administration has a clear record of delivering progress for St. Pete by reducing crime, addressing our infrastructure needs, and keeping St. Pete's economy moving forward.
"I'm excited to talk about that record and how we can continue to lower crime and create even more opportunity for everyone in our great city."
The Baker campaign also sent out a statement.
"I welcome the chance to discuss my vision for moving St. Petersburg forward, toward the goal of a seamless city," Baker said, "while reversing the damage done by Rick Kriseman to our sewer system, pier, and city finances over the past four years."
The Times has produced debates for local, state and national office for two decades, including races for the mayors of St. Petersburg and Tampa, Florida governor, the U.S. Senate and the 2012 Republican Primary Presidential debate.