ST. PETERSBURG — Until Rick Baker swept into a second term four years ago, mayoral races in this town tended to be nasty, divisive affairs. But at least they were predictable: the downtown crowd and African-American community vs. the anti-City Hall folks aligned with west St. Pete.
This year is different. Maybe.
Nothing about this race is predictable. Talk to plugged-in St. Petersburg residents, you find everybody confounded by a political landscape with no obvious front-runner.
The next 51/2 months are all about which two candidates survive the Sept. 1 primary as the top vote getters and then face off in the election in November.
It's easy to see any of five contenders — City Council member Jamie Bennett, former council members Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster, Amscott Financial executive Deveron Gibbons, and businessman Scott Wagman — making that cut. Each of these candidates has enough of a support base that winners and losers could be separated by just a few dozen votes.
So, in sizing up the field at this point we have more questions than answers. Here are some of the big ones:
• What are the overriding issues? Taxes? Crime? Recycling? Baseball? Leadership? So far, there's not much to differentiate the field.
• How angry is the electorate? Does the lousy economy fuel calls for big change at City Hall? It's not readily visible that anger is widespread, but Ford would seem best situated to capitalize if the sentiment emerges because of her combative style and the tough race she ran against Baker eight years ago.
• What is Ford's floor of support? Smart, tough and, to some, mighty divisive, she was a political force once before and some think she's a lock to make it into the November matchup. But without the aid of another popular uprising over a waterfront baseball stadium, can she crack 20 percent?
• How many people has Bill Foster turned off? In demeanor, the fourth-generation St. Petersburg native may be the most mayoral of the bunch. He has a lot of friends among the old St. Pete set and among unions, but he also has a holy roller penchant. Will many voters embrace a fellow who would, as Foster did, write the School Board a letter suggesting Darwinism helped cause the Holocaust and the Columbine massacre?
• Is the black vote unified? African-Americans are expected to account for roughly one in five votes. If Deveron Gibbons, a well-known black community leader, gets the overwhelming share of that vote (and remember even radical Uhuru leader Omali Yeshitela won big in African-American precincts in 2001), he's likely to make it to November.
• Does partisanship matter in a nonpartisan race? If it does, that would probably help Democrats Jamie Bennett and Scott Wagman. It could hurt Gibbons, a Republican activist who helped Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney in the last presidential election but now invokes Barack Obama on the campaign trail.
• Can Gibbons pass a gravitas threshold? In addition to the African-American community, he has support from a host of prominent Republicans, from developer Mel Sembler to state lawmakers living far from St. Petersburg. But he has work to do to become known more as a serious potential leader than a champion schmoozer.
• Can Bennett pass a gravitas threshold? His affable and gregarious nature tends to disguise his thoughtfulness. Being the only member of City Council is an advantage, but he could be painted as a Rick Baker lap dog.
• Will Wagman wear well? Few people know the savvy businessman and philanthropist yet, but he is full of ideas and energy and, with deep pockets, could be a leading contender. But Wagman has a humility deficit, a learning curve and the potential to put his foot in his mouth.
• Who has the best organization? Several of the campaigns are touting superior grass roots organizations, and it's not at all clear who's right. In a race as close as this one stands to be, effective grass roots campaigns could be critical.
• What about the others? Three more obscure candidates — former builder Paul Congemi, Democratic activist and former New Jersey mayor Alex Haak and minister Sharon Russ — are running for mayor, but it's hard to see how they make it into the top tier.
Then again, nothing else about this race looks predictable, so who knows?
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8241.