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Contributions in St. Petersburg mayoral race go from gusher to trickle

ST. PETERSBURG — As the Sept. 1 primary election crawls to a finish, campaign donors are giving less and less to the 10 candidates running for mayor.

The group collectively raised less than $20,000 in a 14-day period, a diminutive sum that stands in stark contrast to the record-breaking hauls reported earlier in the campaign.

Corporate executive Deveron Gibbons and real estate investor Scott Wagman easily maintained their positions as financial frontrunners, further expanding the gulf between them and the other candidates, according to the campaign treasurer's reports that were due Friday.

The disparity raises a question that has flitted among local political observers all season: Can two relatively unknown, first-time candidates buy their way into City Hall?

That money fuels politics is a given. From costly television ads to the cases of water bottles that fuel door-knocking volunteers, reaching out to voters isn't cheap. The more money a candidate has, the more opportunity he or she has to boost name recognition and promote a political narrative.

In St. Petersburg, longtimers like to ruminate that voters here are too savvy to fall for the glitz of shiny campaign mailers or the superficial promises espoused in most political television spots.

History tells another story.

Since St. Petersburg became a strong-mayor form of government in 1994, the mayoral candidate with the most money has always won.

But the victors in those races — David Fischer followed by Rick Baker— also were well known community leaders running against a handful of credible challengers.

Gibbons and Wagman are running in a field of 10 that includes four current or former council members. Neither Gibbons nor Wagman was well known before they entered the race, and both are being written off by rivals as inexperienced businessmen.

"It's going to be hard to predict," said Fischer, the city's first strong mayor. "Certainly the person with the least amount of recognition — conventional wisdom would say they would need to put more in the race to get their name out. In the past, that has been helpful. … But some of the candidates, they have had constituents in the past, so they will aim at those people to get their base going. That's an advantage."

Wagman, the wealthiest candidate, pulled to the front of the money race with the aid of a $140,000 personal loan. He also has raised more money from supporters than all but Gibbons. This go-around, he kept his wallet closed, raising $1,800 from 21 supporters.

Wagman, 56, spent $2,265.33. Wagman was holding a pub crawl campaign event Friday night and could not be reached for comment.

Gibbons, 36, sits in second place. He raised $8,110 and spent $24,563.11, dipping into the comfortable reserves his campaign had built up. For the first time since he entered the race, the bulk of his dollars came from supporters in St. Petersburg. He also could not be reached for comment.

Lawyer Bill Foster, 46, raised $2,630 this period. He stands in third place, but said his stint as a City Council member, not his bank account balance, will buoy his campaign through the general election.

"Honestly, in the past, it's never been the top indicator of who's going to win, and I still don't think it is," he said. "St. Petersburg has its own way of picking the mayor. The people have always rewarded the campaign that worked the hardest."

Lawyer and former council member Kathleen Ford, 52, raised $1,950 and spent $1,596,80. She linked the drop in fundraising dollars to the candidates' last-minute efforts to drum up votes.

"You do your fundraising in the beginning of the campaign and then in the later part you get the word out," she said.

Candidates can't buy the best office in City Hall, she said.

"Folks want somebody they know and they can trust in these tough economic times," said Ford, who placed second in the 2001 mayoral race.

After Gibbons, Larry Williams, 64, pulled in more money than anyone else this period. He collected $3,504 and spent $1,988.37. The prevailing thinking has been "he who has got the gold, gets the election," said Williams, a business owner and former council member who finished third in the 2001 mayoral race. "I don't think that's applicable in St. Petersburg this time."

Restaurateur and real estate investor John Warren, 60, collected $1,050. Council member Jamie Bennett raised $835. Advocate for the homeless Paul Congemi, 52, and student Richard Eldridge, 47, didn't raise any cash.

Retired lawyer Ed Helm, 54, said he raised $302. He was the only candidate who did not submit a report to City Hall by Friday afternoon. He said he would mail in his report to meet the state deadline.

Candidates can raise money through Aug. 27.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Contributions in St. Petersburg mayoral race go from gusher to trickle 08/14/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 4:59pm]
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