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Despite money gap, Kathleen Ford slightly leads Bill Foster in St. Petersburg mayor's race

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayoral candidates Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster have run strikingly different campaigns despite their shared ambition and similar backgrounds.

Ford, 52, a lawyer and former City Council member, developed a grassroots, family-run campaign fueled on volunteers, graphs and criticisms of City Hall. Her paltry war chest of almost $79,000 limited her outreach efforts to personal appearances, door knocking and phone banking.

Foster, 46, a lawyer and former City Council member, built a professional, well-financed campaign supported by many of the city's business and political leaders. His robust campaign coffers ($230,818) allowed for two television advertisements, dozens of colorful mailers and regular lunches for his volunteers.

Yet, the candidates are statistically tied, with Ford in a slight lead, according to a recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll that showed Ford with 39 percent of the vote, followed by Foster with 34, and 24 percent undecided. The poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

"It's going to be close," predicted Mayor Rick Baker, whose term-limited administration ends when the new mayor is sworn in Jan. 2.

In many ways, the long and grueling mayoral race that saw 10 primary candidates winnowed to two has become a battle of change versus continuity.

Ford, a frequent Baker critic, proposes lowering the city's tax rate, raiding the city's healthy reserves and presiding over a more open government.

"We are tired of that secret dealmaking," she said at a forum hosted Wednesday by the Council of Neighborhood Associations.

She is supported by the city's fire union, local labor unions, council member Wengay Newton and the Florida Democratic Party, which recently sent out a mailer to boost her financially struggling campaign.

Ford has built a diverse base, said Ramsey McLauchlan, chair of the Pinellas County Democrats. "There are people who sit back and say, 'I'm not one of the eight good ol' boys who get to sit at the table in the current administration. There are a lot of other views that need to be brought to the table.' "

Foster, who served as a council member during most of Baker's tenure, has pledged to continue City Hall's efforts with some tweaks to public safety, management structure and the budget.

He is supported by the police unions, Baker, former Mayor David Fischer, City Council Chairman Jeff Danner, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and many other former elected officials.

"He and I believe in a lot of the same things in terms of where the city should be going," Baker said. "He wants to move us forward."

It's no surprise, then, that Ford tends to attract supporters disillusioned with the status quo. Fifty-two percent of Ford supporters say the city is heading in the wrong direction, according to the Times/Bay News 9 poll.

Conversely, many voters supportive of Baker's policies back Foster, according to last week's poll, which surveyed 608 registered city voters.

The poll indicated Ford is faring well among voters who supported Ed Helm or Scott Wagman in the primary. Foster is attracting many voters who backed candidates Jamie Bennett, Deveron Gibbons and Larry Williams.

Gibbons' supporters were the most undecided.

Most of those voters are African-American, traditionally a crucial voting bloc in St. Petersburg.

Baker had the support of the city's predominantly black neighborhoods, the northeast corridor and downtown business leaders when he beat Ford in the 2001 mayor's race.

Foster has attracted many residents in those two latter areas, but the black vote is still up for grabs, according to Times' analysis of campaign contributions by ZIP code.

Overall, the candidates have made few inroads into the city's western and southern neighborhoods, according to the candidates' treasurers' reports.

Foster said he has focused heavily on those areas in recent weeks, leading volunteer walks and sign wavings and opening a Midtown campaign office.

"Our western residents have always felt a disconnect from City Hall. I intend to annex west St. Petersburg," he said, explaining that he wants those residents to feel like part of the city again.

During the primary, few voters in the city's southern neighborhoods, home base for Williams, Gibbons and Bennett, voted for Ford or Foster.

"Neither one of us spent, I think, a great deal of our resources there in the primary knowing that there were three really qualified candidates that had sewn up those areas," Foster said.

Ford, who has managed her campaign with the help of her husband, friends and children, did not return multiple requests for comment.

Foster, who has far outpaced Ford in fundraising, took in more money from outside St. Petersburg than Ford raised altogether, according to a Times' analysis of campaign contributions. The tallies include in-kind contributions, like donated catering or printing services.

Foster raised $81,717.17, or about a third, of his $230,818 from outside the city, with a large chunk of the cash coming from real estate offices, construction companies, law firms and insurance corporations.

Ford raised $16,749.85, or about a fifth, of her $78,798 from outside the city, with mostly lawyers and political action committees doling out major contributions.

Foster also bested Ford in every St. Petersburg ZIP code, collecting $149,101 in the city compared with Ford's $62,049.

Times staff writer Darla Cameron contributed to this report.

A closer look at the money

The top five groups that contributed to Foster's campaign identified themselves in the following industries:

Industry Total donations from that industry

Retired $21,850

Real Estate $13,700

Construction $11,600

Attorney $9,700

Homemaker $8,650

*$27,525 came from donors without a profession listed.

The top five groups that contributed to Ford's campaign identified themselves in the following industries:

Industry Total donations from that industry

Attorney $6,567

Retired $6,110

Business $4,875

Law $4,000

Committee $2,893

*$20,142.27 came from donors without a profession listed.

Source: The candidates' campaign treasurer's reports.

A closer look at the money

The top five groups that contributed to Bill Foster's campaign identified themselves in the following industries:

Industry Total donations from that industry
Retired$21,850
Real Estate$13,700
Construction$11,600
Attorney$9,700
Homemaker$8,650

*$27,525 came from donors without a profession listed.

The top five groups that contributed to Kathleen Ford's campaign identified themselves in the following industries:

Industry Total donations from that industry
Attorney$6,567
Retired$6,110
Business$4,875
Law$4,000
Committee$2,893

*$20,142.27 came from donors without a profession listed.

Source: The candidates' campaign treasurer's reports.



Campaign snapshot

Finances: Ford, $79,000; Foster $230,818

Polling: Ford, 39 percent; Foster, 34 percent; undecided, 24 percent

Campaign snapshot

Finances: Ford, $79,000; Foster $230,818

Polling: Ford, 39 percent; Foster, 34 percent; undecided, 24 percent



Campain snapshot

Finances: Ford, $79,000; Foster $230,818

Polling: Ford, 39 percent; Foster, 34 percent; undecided, 24 percent

Despite money gap, Kathleen Ford slightly leads Bill Foster in St. Petersburg mayor's race 10/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 23, 2009 12:31pm]

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