Thursday, January 18, 2018
Politics

Next five weeks crucial in St. Petersburg mayor's race

ST. PETERSBURG — The race between Bill Foster and Rick Kriseman may become one of the most competitive contests in city history.

More than 50,000 people voted in Tuesday's primary, yet fewer than 900 votes separated the incumbent mayor and his challenger.

The men evenly split the city's precincts, with Foster dominating north St. Petersburg and Kriseman capturing neighborhoods south of Central Avenue in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

"It's going to be a tight fight," said businessman Scott Wagman, who lost his own mayoral bid to Foster in the 2009 primary.

"Rick Kriseman is going to have to make a compelling case to fire an incumbent mayor," said Wagman, who supports Foster. "Bill is going to have to mobilize the business community."

A closer analysis of Tuesday's preliminary election results shows the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate and underscores the importance of the next five weeks:

• Foster's stronghold seems to be in precincts with traditionally high voter turnout. The three precincts with the highest turnout (all above 50 percent) voted for Foster: Placido Bayou, Bahama Shores and Caya Costa neighborhoods.

• Kriseman won most precincts south of Central Avenue, including majority African-American neighborhoods thought to be crucial to winning. However, many of those precincts saw the lowest turnouts in the city.

• Foster won his home precinct with 53 percent of the vote and also edged Kriseman out in his precinct by one percentage point. The gap between Kriseman and Foster also was bigger in precincts Foster won. Foster carried 11 precincts with more than 50 percent of the vote, compared with Kriseman's four.

• Kriseman won more votes at the polls Tuesday than Foster, which could mean momentum currently is heading Kriseman's way. He won 40 percent of his 19,460 votes at the polls, according to preliminary results. Foster's support came by mail ballot as he collected only 31 percent of his 20,327 votes at the polls.

• The men split the city's western areas, which Kriseman represented on the City Council and in the Florida House.

Kriseman said the results show an electorate hungry for change. "Almost 60 percent of the citizens voted for someone other than the incumbent mayor. It's significant."

Foster did not return several calls for comment Wednesday.

Third-place finisher Kathleen Ford didn't win a single precinct. Her 9,642 votes were scattered across the city. Both men topped Ford in her home precinct, where she won 23 percent of the vote.

Overall, the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Office reported that 50,029 people voted in the primary. More than 65 percent voted by mail, the most in city history.

For the Nov. 5 general election, mail ballots for overseas and absent military voters will likely go out Sept. 20. Domestic ballots will follow Oct. 1.

It's likely St. Petersburg residents will be bombarded with television commercials and mailers in the coming weeks.

Kriseman said he will target the entire city, even Foster's base.

At Precinct 117, which voted at Mount Zion AME Church, Kriseman won 45 percent of the vote. But turnout there was only 19 percent. Same story for Precincts 224 and 119, which voted at Childs Park and Campbell Park recreation centers. While Kriseman won more the 40 percent of the vote, turnout was less than 18 percent at both locations.

Tuesday's low participation worries one black leader.

"We hope that African-Americans aren't waiting for African-Americans to run for office," said Ray Tampa, a Ford supporter and former head of the NAACP local chapter. "We're looking at what needs to be done to increase voter turnout. I don't know what that is."

He believes Kriseman and Foster will target the area for votes.

Even though the race is nonpartisan, the Florida Democratic Party has spent at least $30,000 on staff to support Kriseman, a Democrat. If Kriseman unseats Foster, the party would control the mayor's offices along the Interstate 4 corridor in Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The state GOP has done little to help Foster, a Republican.

That could change.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is urging his party to "wake up" and help Foster.

"Bill Foster is the last big city mayor in Florida who happens to be a registered Republican," Lat­vala posted Tuesday night on Facebook. "Don't think for one minute that doesn't play a big part in the tens of thousands of dollars the Florida Democratic Party has put into this nonpartisan race!"

Times political editor Adam Smith contributed to this report.

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