ST. PETERSBURG — The mayoral race remains a close one, but challenger Rick Kriseman appears to have built a small lead over Mayor Bill Foster, according to a new poll.
Forty percent of voters support Kriseman while 34 percent favor Foster, according to a Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9, WUSF Public Media poll.
With 19 percent of voters undecided and only 11 days left in the race, the battle may again come down to who can capture votes in the city's black community, which has been a determining factor in recent elections. The poll showed Kriseman with a solid lead among black voters, with 45 percent compared with Foster's 21 percent.
Four years ago, Foster won 63 percent of the black vote on Election Day to solidify his victory over Kathleen Ford.
It's unclear whether Foster's efforts this week will sway any of the community's 23 percent of undecided voters. On Tuesday Foster announced plans to hire a high-level administrator to oversee economic development in Midtown and opened a campaign office in the neighborhood.
Kriseman suggested it was a cynical ploy. "I don't think the mayor has done anything to help himself," Kriseman said of Foster's latest Midtown initiatives. "Voters can see through that."
Leonard Climes, 62, who lives in Lakewood Estates, said Foster has not done enough to help Midtown, which includes the poorest areas of the city.
"We need a change. Period," said Climes, a retired railroad worker. "He turned against us."
The race, officially nonpartisan, has become among the most partisan contests in city history. Foster is a Republican; Kriseman is a Democrat.
The state Republican and Democratic parties, along with outside political committees, are spending thousands of dollars for ads, television spots and polling.
Among Kriseman supporters, 54 percent identified themselves as Democrats. Foster drew an identical percentage of Republican support. The poll's overall margin of error is 3.4 percentage points. The margin of error among black voters is 6 percentage points.
A Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 poll last month showed Kriseman with 40 percent, compared with 39 percent for Foster.
It has been an odd election, as last month 72 percent of voters thought the city was headed in the right direction but were lukewarm about the mayor. With such clear approval for the city's performance, the candidates' focus in recent weeks has been on leadership and personality, though neither seems to be gaining traction.
In this most-recent poll, fewer people supported Foster and more people said they were undecided or refused to answer.
Kriseman, 51, could not explain why his numbers didn't get a corresponding jump: "It's hard to know what's on the minds of voters."
Foster, 50, said his polling shows a much tighter race and took issue with the Times' poll.
"The sample numbers . . . don't reflect the partisan makeup of St. Petersburg," he said. "In any event, no one has ever been sworn in as a result of a scientific telephone poll. We remain very encouraged by the support we are receiving from this community."
The poll, conducted Oct. 17-21 by Braun Research of New Jersey, surveyed 809 registered voters who said they will definitely or probably vote on Nov. 5. It was weighted to reflect the age, gender, race and political party of St. Petersburg registered voters.
Residents were also asked their biggest reason for picking Foster and Kriseman.
The biggest reason cited by Foster supporters was his experience as mayor (40 percent), followed by his leadership skills (18 percent), his Republican affiliation (10 percent), and a dislike of Kriseman (8 percent).
Conversely, 23 percent of voters said their support for Kriseman stemmed from a dislike of Foster, followed by 16 percent who picked along party lines and 8 percent who said they liked his policy ideas.
Lynn Colt, 68, wants to give Foster four more years to finish his job, especially building a replacement for the Pier, which poll respondents ranked as the most pressing issue for the next mayor.
"He knows what the city needs," said Colt, a retired legal secretary from Disston Heights.
John Doyle, an electrician in Central Oak Park, said he didn't like the way the mayor handled the plan to replace the inverted pyramid or his failed fire fee.
"I can't really tell where he stands," said Doyle, 49. "I don't think he has been a good leader."
One of Karen Clark's biggest nits with Foster is his relationship with City Council members. Foster rarely consults with most of the group on major issues and often argues with them in public meetings. Six of them support Kriseman.
"He comes across as a bully," said Clark, 58. "It rubs me the wrong way. It's very childish."
Retired radio broadcaster Bob Potter, 66, said he likes the way Foster tackled the panhandling and homeless problems.
"He's not a ball of fire, but his heart is in the right place," Potter said.
And while Sophie Erber, 23, a downtown resident and restaurant server on Beach Drive, doesn't like the way Foster handled the Pier, she said that's not enough to back Kriseman.
She supports Foster's hard line stance of not allowing the Tampa Bay Rays to look for new stadium sites across the bay and likes how he secured $5 million in public money that allowed the Salvador Dali Museum to open on time.
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter @ markpuente.