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Rick Kriseman tops Bill Foster in St. Petersburg mayor's race

ST. PETERSBURG

The race was contentious, the costliest in history and nine months long, but in what felt like a moment, a majority of voters made clear what they wanted — a new man to lead them.

Just minutes after 7 p.m. Tuesday, the election all but ended when results from absentee ballots showed Rick Kriseman with a commanding 10-point lead over Mayor Bill Foster. Kriseman finished the night with 56 percent of the vote to Foster's 44 percent.

When Kriseman announced his candidacy in February, few people gave the 51-year-old former state lawmaker and City Council member a reasonable chance to win. He hadn't been on a citywide ballot in six years.

But at 8:30 p.m., Kriseman emerged wide-eyed and grinning from a curtained back room at the banquet hall Nova 535. Hundreds shouted and clapped as cameras flashed. With his family behind him, he weaved through a raucous crowd to take the stage. He read from a statement, thanking all involved in his victory: family, campaign staff, volunteers and especially voters.

"They knew a strong city deserved a strong mayor," he said. "And they understand the positive impact City Hall can have on our economy, our neighborhoods and our schools."

Foster is the first incumbent to lose the job since residents approved a strong-mayor form of government in 1993. David Fischer and Rick Baker both won second terms.

A perplexing issue dogged Foster in recent months. Seven out of 10 residents believed the city was headed in the right direction, but they didn't credit Foster, according to a recent poll.

"It's been an incredible journey," a subdued mayor said at the Manhattan Casino. "I can say I'm leaving this city better than it was four years ago."

While Kriseman won support from six of the eight council members, he will face challenges once he takes office on Jan. 2.

As mayor-elect, he must quickly decide how to proceed with the search for a new police chief. Police Chief Chuck Harmon retires on Jan. 6, and Foster already started a search to replace him.

Dozens of applicants from across the country have applied, with an approaching deadline of Nov. 15. On Tuesday, however, Foster said he would halt the search.

Kriseman has said he wants to hire an outside firm to lead the search and allow the council to play a role in the decision, something Foster opposed.

The new mayor will eventually have to address major issues including the Pier and the stadium stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays, but he must first face the prospect of an exodus of top administrators. Losing staffers with decades of experience could hamper his first year.

Most department heads have held their positions dating to former Mayor Rick Baker. During the campaign, Kriseman criticized many policies directly under their control.

Many longtime city employees gathered with Foster on Tuesday night and wondered whether Kriseman would make swift changes at City Hall.

A party atmosphere never developed at the Manhattan Casino where Foster gathered with 150 supporters.

With early results showing Foster down, supporters cheered as he entered the banquet room. They offered hugs and handshakes.

Foster then huddled with his campaign team before walking to each table.

A close confidant, businessman Scott Wagman, said the battle to replace the inverted pyramid with the proposed Lens contributed to Foster's defeat.

"Bill made a lot of errors," Wagman said. "The Pier was the biggest blow."

But another mistake was to run a campaign with friends against Kriseman's team of political professionals, Wagman said, adding: "That didn't work."

Foster offered faint smiles while working the room. When he reached the stage, he thanked his supporters and said he would meet with Kriseman this week to work on the transition.

Foster said he was looking forward to "being a husband again" and hugged his wife, Wendy. He also said he was looking forward to his daughter's wedding next weekend.

"I'm at a loss," said supporter Wayne Drash. "He ran a good, clean campaign."

Council member Wengay Newton said Foster has no one to blame but himself.

"(Former Mayor Rick) Baker handed him the keys to a Bentley on 20-inch rims and all he had to do was drive it," Newton said.

Council member Leslie Curran predicted that Kriseman will build coalitions.

"I'm a Republican, but I have confidence that Rick will listen to people across the all boundaries," she said.

Throughout the election, Kriseman enjoyed many political advantages: a fatter campaign chest, a professional campaign staff and financial support from the state Democratic Party. Foster enjoyed recent help from the state GOP.

Pinellas GOP chairman Michael Guju said the state party took the race for granted and should have helped Foster sooner.

Ever since the Aug. 27 primary, Foster and Kriseman defined each other as ineffective leaders. Few issues separated them in the campaign

Kriseman also played it safe in the contest. He didn't have many missteps in front of voters. His campaign was heavily scripted.

At a news conference billed last month as a "major policy speech," he read from an eight-page statement about goals he already had touted to voters.

On Tuesday night, both men praised each other in their speeches. Foster vowed to work with his former opponent to make the transition as smooth as possible. Kriseman called the mayor an "honorable man" and said he had been gracious.

In his call to concede, Foster also gave a pointed piece of advice.

"She's all yours," Foster told him. "Don't wreck it."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter @ markpuente.

Rick Kriseman tops Bill Foster in St. Petersburg mayor's race 11/05/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 6, 2013 10:37am]

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