ST. PETERSBURG — Mayoral hopeful Kathleen Ford is on the end of more attacks by one of Florida's powerful lobbying groups.
The Council for Stronger Neighborhoods, a group tied to the Florida Realtors, has been blanketing St. Petersburg voters with ads that urge residents to call Ford and "tell her that we can't afford her cronyism and self-interest."
The Orlando-based group, an electioneering communications organization, sent the first ad last week, but followed up with two more this week that talk about how "petty" and "divisive" Ford was during her time on the City Council in the 1990s.
The mailers follow the Pinellas Realtor Organization's endorsement of Mayor Bill Foster in the Aug. 27 primary. Foster also is facing a challenge from former council member and state legislator Rick Kriseman.
Foster called the ads "detestable and childish" and said the group didn't notify his campaign before sending them. Ads should be about candidates promoting their visions for the city, he said.
"I think they're done in poor taste," Foster said. "They reflect poorly on the people sending them. It doesn't help anybody."
Even some within the real estate community think the attack ads went too far.
"I'm appalled by the attacks on Ford," said Bonnie Strickland, a Foster supporter who works for ReMax Metro. "I don't support that. There has to be some level of integrity."
Gary Schraut, chairman of the group and an agent with Century 21 Alliance Realty in Brooksville, declined to comment.
Ford, 56, addressed the mailers Wednesday at a mayoral forum after Foster, 50, and Kriseman, 51, denounced the attacks. With jobs and contracts at stake, people are afraid of her winning the election, she said.
"There are a lot of folks who are not comfortable with that," Ford said.
If campaign fundraising records are any indication, Foster has a deep well of support in the real estate industry.
Of the $127,608 he raised this year, 14 percent — $18,127 — came from the industry. Earlier this month, five political committees tied to the Florida Realtors donated a total of $2,500.
Real estate workers donated $5,400 to Kriseman, 4 percent of the $135,094 he raised through Aug. 2. Ford collected the least from the industry: $1,000 of $29,615.
Strickland said she supports Foster because she believes he has taken the city to a new level. She pointed to ongoing construction throughout the city and the resurgence of downtown.
"The city is headed in the right direction," said Strickland, who deals with corporate relocations. "He's a very strong leader."
She said Foster always takes time to share his visions with her corporate clients thinking about moving to St. Petersburg.
It's unknown when the Council for Stronger Neighborhoods planned the mailers, but they could be helping Kriseman.
An automated telephone survey done this week by StPetePolls.org shows Ford trailing Foster and Kriseman. The survey pegs Foster at 33 percent and Kriseman at 32 percent. Ford, who once topped early polls, came in at 22 percent. Fringe candidates Paul Congemi and Anthony Cates recorded a combined 4 percent. Undecided voters pulled 9 percent, the poll shows.
Blogger and political consultant Peter Schorsch commissioned the poll.
The attack ads could sway some voters, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. Direct-mail ads play a bigger role with older residents, since they read everything in their mailboxes, she added.
"They're effective if people are undecided," MacManus said.
As of Tuesday, voters had returned 24,404 — or 39 percent — of the 63,138 absentee ballots sent by the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office.
Cesar Fernandez, Kriseman's campaign manager, dismissed the idea that Kriseman is benefiting from the attacks.
"The only ads that help are the ones that make a case why Rick is better than Foster," Fernandez said.
Those ads are coming from Jacksonville.
Fact Check Florida, an electioneering communications organization, has sent multiple mailers touting Kriseman as the better candidate. The mailers arrived shortly after the group was incorporated on July 17.
The groups don't have limits on contributions or expenditures. They can coordinate with candidates but not expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate.
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @ markpuente.