Monday, February 19, 2018
Politics

Expect jabs in debates for St. Petersburg mayoral race

ST. PETERSBURG — It's showtime.

With the primary election in the past, Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman will now battle one on one, record versus record, vision versus vision.

Tuesday starts a new round of mayoral debates ahead of the Nov. 5 general election.

As the former City Council members and lawyers hone their pitches, economic development and small business are the themes in a forum Tuesday sponsored by University of South Florida St. Petersburg and LocalShops1. The arts is the topic at a Wednesday morning event at [email protected], followed by a debate Wednesday hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Broadwater Civic Association.

"I believe that a clear majority of residents feel that St. Petersburg is headed in the right direction," Foster said. "As such, voters will continue to hear about the many victories of my administration."

Kriseman said: "In the next nine weeks I will continue to talk about the issues that people talk about around their kitchen table at night. My vision is a St. Petersburg with a greater number of quality jobs."

Voters could see testy exchanges since fewer than 900 votes separated the two in the primary. Several themes are likely to emerge.

Foster, 50, will stress how he kept the city afloat in the aftermath of the recession and helped get cranes in the sky as $500 million in construction is under way throughout the city. He'll say Kriseman didn't do anything to help St. Petersburg while spending six years in the Florida House.

Foster said he will focus in the debates on falling crime rates and how he reduced homelessness and panhandling on city streets. He also wants voters to look around at the growth and ongoing boom in a city that "has never looked or felt more vibrant."

He urged voters to view the candidates as applicants hawking resumes.

"These resumes will make a very clear distinction of who the most qualified and prepared candidate is to lead the city of St. Petersburg for the next four years," Foster said. "Voters will learn how my opponent is little more than a career politician, beholden to out-of-town interests, with very little to show for his 11 years in politics."

To counter, Kriseman, 51, will portray Foster's tenure as a train wreck.

He'll allege failed leadership on the Lens, the defeated project to replace the Pier, and the growing rift with the Tampa Bay Rays over a new stadium. He'll say Foster frequently changes positions on issues.

Kriseman said he will talk in the debates about public transportation, public art and local businesses that add character and culture to the city. He also vows to establish a marine science research park around the city's marine science industry.

Another priority is improving schools to boost the overall quality of life in the city, he said.

"I want our kids to be engaged in solving our city problems, like reducing waste in our neighborhoods and increasing our local food supply," Kriseman said.

Two St. Petersburg politicians see a path to victory for each candidate.

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat, said Kriseman must stay on message, regardless of whether he's campaigning in Midtown, the Old Northeast or the city's west side.

"Rick needs to keep his head down," Rouson said. "He needs to tell his message that he is a firm and decisive leader. He is not wishy-washy or 'take my temperature to see where I stand today.' "

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican, said Foster needs to stress his track record and point to the construction under way, businesses growing in the city and people flocking to live downtown.

"He has to continue to foster the idea that this is a great place to live and work," Brandes said. "It's important that people know about the things going on in St. Pete."

Another key item is fundraising.

Although Kriseman raised more money than Foster in the primary, the mayor had more cash on hand at the end of August.

Kriseman has told supporters that Foster has the ability to raise money because of his ties in the business community. But Kriseman's six years in the Florida House have helped him pull cash from the state Democratic Party and Tallahassee connections.

The next reporting period for campaign donations ends Friday.

Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter: @markpuente.

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