Paid pro vs. old friend guide St. Petersburg mayoral candidates

ST. PETERSBURG — With dim lights and disco music filling the Palladium Theater last month, Rick Kriseman and his family stood in a doorway. Friends waited for election results.

Moments later, the mayoral hopeful strolled onstage in front of a large campaign sign and television cameras. He then read a prepared statement about battling Mayor Bill Foster in the November election.

The made-for-television moment resembled statewide or national campaign events — not a St. Petersburg mayor's race. This contest resembles past elections, except for the men leading the day-to-day operations.

Kriseman hired Cesar Fernandez, 23, a political operative from South Florida. He is paid by the state Democratic Party. Foster tapped Niel Allen, 51, a Realtor and longtime friend, for the unpaid post.

"He's not a political professional," Fernandez said of Allen. "There's nothing wrong with that. You're managing a friendship and a campaign at the same time. That's dangerous."

Allen replied: "His only interest in St. Petersburg is a paycheck."

Full-time political consultants traditionally have been rare in St. Petersburg elections. Candidates typically lured friends to run campaigns, not hire political professionals.

"They were almost nonexistent," said University of South Florida St. Petersburg history professor Ray Arsenault.

"We didn't often use them," said former Mayor Bob Ulrich, a Foster backer.

But the landscape shifted after voters approved a charter amendment for a strong-mayor system in 1993, elevating the mayor's race to a high-stakes campaign.

Said Ulrich: "There's more demands for money today."

The ages and backgrounds of Allen and Fernandez are as different as the two campaigns.

Foster and Allen have been close for a decade.

Allen, a fourth-generation resident, attended Appalachian State University. After spending more than 15 years in banking and securities, he became a Realtor in 2003. He now works at Smith & Associates.

He is the son of Mary Wyatt Allen, a prominent civic figure, and the late Dr. T.C. "Tom" Allen Jr., a former bay area insurance executive who became a high-profile restaurateur in Nashville, Tenn.

Allen knows politics. His mother frequently took him to City Council meetings.

"I gave up a lot of my childhood to go to those meetings," he said, laughing.

He also served on Preserve our Wallets and Waterfront, or POWW, the group that opposed a waterfront stadium in 2008.

Fernandez, the first college graduate in his family, grew up in West Miami.

After earning a degree from the University of Florida in 2011, his stepfather and mother enrolled in college. His stepfather is a plumber; his mother is now a full-time student.

"They want to show my sister the importance of college," he said. "They also want better lives for themselves."

Fernandez said he became hooked on politics after knocking on doors for Barack Obama in 2008.

From June 2011 to June 2012, he worked as a legislative assistant to Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach. He then managed the 2012 Florida Senate campaign for state Rep. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth. He won by 17 votes.

• • •

Foster, 50, topped Kriseman, 51, by fewer than 900 votes in the primary. Voters will pick a new mayor on Nov. 5.

In an electronic age, both campaigns use Twitter and Facebook to reach voters and solicit donations. Kriseman's camp uses the sites more often.

Foster's supporters wave signs at city intersections on Saturdays, while Kriseman's team spends hours calling voters.

Arsenault, the history professor, said local elections are now modeled after national races, with more foot soldiers.

"Anybody who can increase voter turnout is increasingly valuable," he said. "What's going on behind the scenes is important."

With five full-time staffers, Fernandez says he works more than 70 hours a week. He believes the campaign is the most sophisticated ever in the city. He points to workers analyzing voter data seven days a week and the team raising more money than Foster.

"St. Pete has seen very old-school campaigns," Fernandez said.

Allen disagreed.

He says he works eight or more hours each day and that volunteers review the same data as Kriseman's workers.

"Our supporters don't care where Bill eats lunch," Allen said, referring to Kriseman's lunchtime tweets. "We're using all the same approaches."

While Allen, who is not married, works for free, Foster does pay Clearwater political consultant Jack Hebert to coordinate media buys. Hebert doesn't get involved in much of the daily operations, Allen said.

Asked why he would work for free, Allen said: "I'm helping a friend. We have the same philosophies. He's honest, has integrity and has the best interests of the city at heart."

Critics contend Foster's low-key style doesn't serve the city well.

His event at downtown's Midtown Sundries Sports Bar had a different look than the Palladium Theater. Foster bounced between tables to thank supporters. Cameras followed.

No stage. No microphone. No prepared statements like Kriseman.

Fernandez said he created the setting at the Palladium so Kriseman and his supporters could celebrate the first election milestone — entering the runoff with Foster, adding: "I do this for a living."

Allen said the event was over the top, adding: "It was a bit presumptuous. You never know what can happen on election night."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @ markpuente.

Paid pro vs. old friend guide St. Petersburg mayoral candidates 09/22/13 [Last modified: Sunday, September 22, 2013 9:16am]

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