ST. PETERSBURG — A month after taking office in 2010, Mayor Bill Foster delivered a gift that police unions wanted: He gave officers more freedom to chase fleeing suspects.
More perks followed — domestic benefits, more expensive ballistic vests and an expanded program for take-home cars.
Now, the police unions are among the mayor's staunchest supporters, pouring money into his campaign and providing the foot soldiers to canvass streets for votes. If challenger Rick Kriseman unseats Foster on Tuesday, the unions stand to lose the most clout among city workers. The city's non-police unions have battled with Foster, and only one supports his re-election.
A recent poll shows Kriseman with a small lead over Foster, with 40 percent of voters favoring the challenger and 34 percent favoring the incumbent. The poll had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
Kriseman has pledged to tighten up the chase policy immediately after taking office, a response to community outrage over what some residents describe as reckless driving by police officers. Kriseman also said he would examine the Foster-approved policy of allowing officers to commute up to 40 miles in city-owned police vehicles.
Police union leaders say they aren't worried about Kriseman's positions. Much of his campaign rhetoric is reactionary and made without the candidate having all the information, said Detective Mark Marland, head of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association.
"We will be able to work with him if it goes his way," Marland said. "He understands loyalty."
For his part, Kriseman said he wouldn't expect backlash from officers.
"I don't hold grudges," he said. "I'm not vindictive. My job will be to work with everybody in the best interests of the city."
Before 2010, police unions didn't hold any sway at City Hall and were considered more combative under former Mayors David Fischer and Rick Baker.
Although Florida is a right-to-work state, mayoral candidates seek support from the three unions representing 2,074 of the city's 2,700 full-time workers. Still, an endorsement doesn't guarantee votes.
Only 60 percent of the city's unionized workers — 1,262 — live in St. Petersburg and can vote. Only 217 of the 545 police officers live in the city.
Union members living outside the city can still influence voters by telling them how Foster has improved public safety, Marland said.
The Florida Public Services Union, which represents 1,200 city workers, is silent in the mayor's race. Instead, the rank-and-file members are working to elect more progressive candidates to the City Council.
The City Council controls the money, said Rick Smith, the union's chief of staff.
The blue-collar union, which endorsed Kathleen Ford over Foster in 2009, includes more minorities than the police and fire unions. The group also is more ingrained in the city's African-American community, which could swing the election for either Foster or Kriseman.
In recent months, the union lobbied Foster and the City Council to include a 2 percent pay raise in the next budget, the first increase in four years.
St. Petersburg's firefighters union, Local 747, has frequently battled with Foster. The group now backs Foster's bid to keep his job, but it had nothing to do with securing perks, said president Michael Blank.
The executive committee considered the history of city elections and the pending contract negotiations, Blank said.
"An incumbent has never lost," Blank said. "It wouldn't be the smartest thing to do. We decided to join forces to make it a public-safety campaign."
Kriseman is no stranger to the police and fire unions. Both groups endorsed him during his six years in the Florida House.
Marland, the police union boss, said the group told Kriseman he wouldn't get their endorsement because Foster has not done anything to lose it.
Dating back to 2010, Foster said he gave police officers the extra perks in order to keep them from leaving for other departments, not political gain.
Marland agreed: "We now have the ability to sit down and discuss issues with the mayor."
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @ markpuente.