ST. PETERSBURG — Bill Foster pulled away to win St. Petersburg's mayoral race Tuesday, defeating Kathleen Ford with the backing of the city's political establishment in an election that tested voters' hunger for change.
Ultimately, voters rallied behind Foster, 46, a lawyer and former council member who promised steady progress in contrast to Ford's reformist platform.
Early mail ballots gave Foster a meager lead soon after the polls closed, but his margin of victory widened as precinct results from Election Day trickled in. He won with nearly 53 percent of the vote, compared with Ford's 47 percent.
"Steady progress wins the day," Foster said Tuesday at his election party at Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill. "Radical change is something we've not been receptive to."
Still, he said, "47 percent of voters didn't agree with me, and I will work to try to earn their respect every day."
Turnout was 29.6 percent, a noticeable drop from the 34 percent showing in the last open mayor's race in 2001.
Throughout the election, Foster enjoyed many political advantages: a hefty campaign kitty more than triple the size of his rival's, endorsements from the city's police unions, business groups and former and current elected officials and a professional campaign staff.
In television advertisements and mailers, he painted Ford, 52, as a divisive leader incapable of cooperating with others.
Still, Ford, a lawyer and former council member, put up a strong fight. She had a slight lead in the polls as recently as three weeks ago. Her grass roots campaign plastered signs throughout the city. Voters seemed intrigued by her fiscal conservatism and refusal to fund a new baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays.
In the end, her efforts earned her more votes than in her first bid for mayor in 2001, when she lost with 43 percent of the vote to Mayor Rick Baker.
"I'm sad, a little disappointed with the outcome, but extremely thrilled with the amount of volunteer support and financial support in these tough economic times," Ford told supporters Tuesday night at the Garden Club of St. Petersburg.
She called Foster to concede the election about 8 p.m.
Ford said she's likely done running for office. However, she said she'll remain active in the baseball stadium issue.
Baker, an early Foster supporter who pushed hard for his campaign in the final days of the race, predicted Foster would be a successful leader.
He arrived at Ferg's just as Foster was giving his acceptance speech.
"I have great shoes to fill, and those shoes just walked into the room," Foster said.
Baker attributed Foster's victory to his promises to continue the city's progress in Midtown, downtown, public safety and neighborhoods.
Foster, who will be sworn in Jan. 2, could set the city on a new course.
As a candidate, he vowed to relax the Police Department's no-chase policy by granting officers greater authority over when to chase criminals, a position police Chief Chuck Harmon declared unsafe and unnecessary.
Foster said Tuesday one of his first priorities will be to meet with Harmon "early and often" to talk about his policies.
Foster also promised greater fiscal accountability and transparency at City Hall.
But his election will likely not bring about the wide-sweeping changes proposed by Ford.
Like Baker, Foster is a Republican and a Christian conservative who said he would not support the city's annual St. Pete Pride parade. Also like Baker, Foster said he would meet with the Tampa Bay Rays to discuss the team's future, including a new stadium, and he committed to protecting the city's nearly $300 million in reserves.
"Everything worked out the way it should," said Council Chair Jeff Danner, a Foster supporter who was re-elected Tuesday. "People realized it's not the time to make drastic changes right now."
City administrators — many of whom were uncertain about their professional futures in a Ford administration — appeared at Ferg's to greet their new boss Tuesday night.
Foster offered Deputy Mayor Tish Elston a hug.
"Put your resume in the shredder," he told her. "I need you. Don't go anywhere."
Foster's victory Tuesday capped off months of heated campaigning in a race that saw flashes of religious, racial and gender-based tensions.
Foster and Ford were longtime friends and allies who quickly turned on each other after prevailing over eight other contenders in the Sept. 1 primary.
In recent weeks, Foster portrayed Ford as a "divider" who misrepresented facts to her advantage.
Conversely, Ford claimed criticisms about her temperament were rooted in sexism. She also questioned Foster's disbelief in evolution.
Foster, in his victory speech, said he was called to run.
"I've never shied away from my faith, because it is who I am," he said, to rousing applause. "But I will govern under the Constitution of the United States."
Both candidates struggled to attract black voters but suffered from missteps. Foster refused to take a photo with Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, the city's first black police chief and a political heavyweight. Ford later used the an acronym meaning "Head Negro in Charge" while discussing Davis' professional responsibilities.
Did it cost her the election?
"It is what it is," said Davis, who congratulated Foster Tuesday night. "She is who she is. The people have spoken."
A St. Petersburg native, Foster had a longtime ambition to lead the city.
In 1991, Foster applied to become St. Petersburg's city manager. He didn't make the first cut.
Two years later he ran for City Council and lost.
In 1998, Foster was appointed to the City Council, where he remained until 2007.
"This has been in his blood forever," said council member Bill Dudley, a former Northeast High School teacher who recalled a young Foster as a student with a keen interest in politics. "I know this fulfills his dream. It can't get any better than that."
Times staff writer Jamal Thalji and David DeCamp contributed to this report.