St. Pete mayoral primary: Kriseman, Baker headed to runoff

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ST. PETERSBURG— Despite trailing in the polls and fundraising throughout the summer, incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman made it a very tight race against former Mayor Rick Baker in Tuesday night's mayoral primary.

Rick vs. Rick ended in a near draw — with Kriseman leading by just 69 votes out of about 56,500 cast — setting the stage for a Nov. 7 rematch.

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

Kriseman took 48.36 percent of the vote, or 27,322 votes. Baker, a former two-term mayor, won 27,253 or 48.23 percent. That's with all 92 precincts reporting.

Kriseman could thank the late but crucial endorsement Friday of former President Barack Obama for giving him a late but needed lift in the primary. The mayor took the stage at the State Theatre to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' I Won't Back Down as more than 100 people cheered jubilantly.

"We didn't back down, did we?" Kriseman said, "and we're not going to back down are we?"

An animated Baker told his supporters at the StayBridge Suites that he would fight to the end.

"I know a lot of y'all were hoping we finish this up tonight," Baker said. "But I have to tell you not me. I'm having too much fun. I think that we have two more months and we're going to run those two more months hard all the way to the finish line and we're going to communicate to everybody in our community our message that St. Pete is going to be best if it's brought together as one city."

RELATED: Obama gives Kriseman a last-minute but much-needed endorsement

The Baker campaign raised more $1 million, about $200,000 more than Kriseman. The mayor criticized his opponent's fundraising advantage, saying: "It hasn't been easy. Baker's special interest friends made sure of that."

Kriseman again appealed to the future, saying that voting for Baker, who served as mayor from 2001-10, would represent a step backwards for the city.

"Those days were good for Rick Baker," Kriseman said, "but they weren't good for our city."

Most voters made up their mind days or even weeks ago when the first ballots were mailed out on July 25. There were 38,041 ballots returned by the time the polls opened on Tuesday. Another 15,803 residents braved sporadic showers and suffocating humidity to cast their ballots.

Tuesday's results mean the end for four other longshot candidates: Jesse Nevel, Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter, Anthony Cates III and Paul Congemi.

Baker appeared to win about 45 of the city's 92 precincts. Kriseman about took 42, and the rest were too close to call.

Baker finished strongest in northeast St. Petersburg. The five precincts where he pulled the largest margins over Kriseman were in Shore Acres, Snell Isle and the Riviera Bay area around Mangrove Bay Golf Course. In those precincts combined, he finished with nearly 1,500 votes more than Kriseman.

Kriseman did well downtown and in the central part of the city in and around the Uptown neighborhood, where he won by a margin of 440 votes.

Baker took most of the precincts that make up Midtown, gaining about 260 votes on Kriseman. The two men will battle for the about 340 votes the other four candidates garnered in those precincts.

The 2017 campaign has centered on responsibility for the up to 200 million gallons of sewage the city's sewer system released over 13 months from 2015-16. Both candidates blamed one another. Baker said it was Kriseman's decision to carry out a 2011 City Council recommendation to close the Albert Whitted sewage plant that was the root cause of the crisis, which sparked state and federal investigations. The city had to agree to a state consent order mandating that it spend hundreds of millions of dollars to fix the problem.

Baker's case was bolstered by a draft report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that placed most of the blame on the Kriseman administration, especially for its handling of the Albert Whitted situation. The FWC investigation is still ongoing.

RELATED: Rick vs. Rick: St. Petersburg sewage crisis edition

But Kriseman blamed Baker for neglecting to keep up sewer maintenance during his term as mayor from 2001-10, during which the city had to satisfy a previous consent under Baker's watch. The FWC draft report said the city's sewage problems were so widespread that the last 20 years of city leadership deserved blame. Kriseman also touted his $305 million plan to fix the ailing system.

There was no lack of sparring over other issues. Kriseman's campaign highlighted the unease the city's growing and prominent LGBT has toward the Baker era. The former mayor never marched in St. Pete Pride during his tenure and refused to do so this year. Baker said he wanted to include the LGBT community in his vision of a "seamless city" and visited Pride festivities the day after the parade.

Kriseman, endorsed by the Sierra Club, also pummeled Baker over the issue of climate change. He challenged Baker's position that humans have contributed to a warming planet, but he didn't know by how much. Scientists believe that climate change is a man-made phenomenon.

Baker focused on Kriseman's sewage woes, but also criticized the mayor's spending. Baker said the incumbent mayor is spending too much on the new pier and new police headquarters. Baker also framed himself as a hands-on manager of city affairs contrasting his style to Kriseman's self-professed "30,000-foot" perspective.

Neither Kriseman nor Baker made a major gaffe or mortally wounded their opponents during the many debates and campaign forums in June and July.

But those debates did provide widespread attention for Nevel and Congemi, who became minor themes during the campaign. Nevel's Uhuru supporters shut down one July forum, then scuffled with Lassiter's backers. A week later, Congemi's racist remarks directed at Nevel and his supporters made national news. Baker's campaign later used Kriseman's decision not to reprimand Congemi during that City Hall debate in a negative campaign ad.

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

The final month leading up to the primary was dominated by partisan politics as Kriseman continued to tie Baker to national Republican politics and politicians, especially President Donald Trump. Aside from Obama's endorsement, Kriseman also had the support of Congressman Charlie Crist, who spent many hours on the campaign trail with the mayor.

Kriseman said that, although mayor is a non-partisan position, he wouldn't shrink from his party values or using them to motivate voters in a city with more than 30,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

Baker, a Republican, accepted plenty of money from GOP donors and PACs. But he argued the race should be non-partisan and that his opponent was trying to nationalize the contest to hide his record. However, Baker has also refused to say if he voted for Trump.

Baker rallied his supporters for the next 70 days.

"Before you can finish the race, you've got to take the first step," Baker said. "Today was the first step."

Times staff writers Divya Kumar, Waveney Ann Moore and Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]

                     
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