ST. PETERSBURG — The race for the District 2 seat on the St. Petersburg City Council may be the strangest one in the city's tangled political history.
The incumbent, James R. "Jim" Kennedy, has never run for office. Meanwhile his challenger, Stephen J. "Steve" Corsetti, is an experienced campaigner — albeit in another state.
But it's the novice who has raised $20,000 and lined up a host of endorsements, while the challenger plays catchup with a $7,500 kitty. A recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll showed 58 percent of voters were still undecided, with Kennedy in a slight lead, 21 percent to Corsetti's 17. However, Kennedy's lead falls within the poll's 4 percentage point margin of error.
Two years ago Kennedy, 52, was just another St. Petersburg lawyer with a downtown office in a restored historic building, joking that his specialties are "death, divorce and dismemberment."
He was a longtime board member of Community Action Stops Abuse, better known as CASA, but he was not active in the city's politics. He had made a couple of presentations to the council about CASA but otherwise had not attended any council meetings.
When council member John Bryan committed suicide in 2007, the council picked the New Jersey native over four others to take the seat representing the city's northernmost district, which stretches from Sawgrass Lake to Weedon Island.
When Kennedy was offered the post, he said his wife, Norma, who is from Plant City, told him, "You're probably smart enough to do the job, and dumb enough to take it." He said he'd give it two years and see whether he still liked it enough to seek another term.
"It's a heck of a learning curve," Kennedy conceded. "In the first six months, I came to understand that if I asked a question, I should be prepared for a half-hour history conversation."
Now he's chairing two committees — the Budget, Finance, and Tax Committee and the Investment Oversight Committee — and his campaign for a new term had drawn support from Mayor Rick Baker, former Mayors Randy Wedding and Robert Ulrich, and the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce's political action committee. Former City Council member Earnest Williams praised Kennedy's work on budget issues, saying that he now "knows the nuances of city government."
He's still the careful lawyer, though. When the council discussed a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays (the favorite team of a self-described "baseball freak"), Kennedy wrote and read a seven-page analysis of the situation before casting his vote.
But to his challenger, Kennedy has been a do-nothing chair-warmer from day one.
Since Corsetti, 65, retired to St. Petersburg on disability, he has become vice president of the Riviera Bay Civic Association, and that gave him his first glimpse of what's going on in the district.
"We have flooding issues," Corsetti said. Despite complaints to the city, he said, "we're not getting any results. … We're not getting the same representation as the other districts are getting."
He became active in the Council of Neighborhood Associations and began attending council meetings, he said, "and the more involved I got … I saw more and more things I didn't like."
So Corsetti decided to run for the council himself. One advantage he has over Kennedy, he said, is that although he's a rabid baseball fan, an avid angler and an endurance cycler, those are all hobbies. He has no law practice to distract him from the public's business.
"A council seat may be a part-time job, but it's not a day-a-week job," he said. "I look at it as a full-time job."
Unlike Kennedy, Corsetti has plenty of experience with politics. When he and his wife, Jean, lived in the small New Hampshire town of Danbury, he got interested in police work. He had run his own mechanical contracting business as well as a 100-acre farm, but law enforcement is what he really liked.
The job of police chief in Danbury was an elected position, so he ran against the incumbent and won because the voters "didn't like the other guy — he wasn't doing his job." Corsetti also worked part time as an officer in a neighboring town, Franklin.
He wound up serving 11 years as chief in Danbury and was in law enforcement for 23 years total. Call Danbury now, and the officers there will say they wish he would come back.
Police work turned out to be fraught with peril. One suspect broke Corsetti's wrist during an arrest, leading two years later to his disability retirement.
At one point, he was even arrested himself, he said. It happened in 1988.
"I was accused of striking an individual I had arrested who had just beaten the hell out of an off-duty cop," he said. A jury took his word over that of his accuser, a drug-dealer, he said, and he was acquitted.
Given his background, it's no surprise his candidacy has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, Pinellas Lodge 43, and the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association. He has also gotten a somewhat backhanded endorsement from blogger Peter Schorsch, who said Corsetti "could be a breath of fresh air for a city government stale with political impotence."
Don't expect any seven-page analyses from Corsetti — and don't expect him to go along with what everyone else on the council might do, either.
"I'm not the type of person who's going to sit there and do what the staff tells me I should do," he said.
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.