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Partisan fervor flavors St. Petersburg mayoral race

ST. PETERSBURG — After eight years under Republican Mayor Rick Baker, local Democrats are gunning to elect one of their own in the upcoming mayoral race, and Democratic candidates are happily egging on the partisan frenzy.

"Who here wants to have a Democrat in the mayor's office of St. Pete?" mayoral hopeful Scott Wagman called out during a meeting of the St. Petersburg Democratic Club last week, eliciting a round of cheers.

The club invited Wagman and two other Democratic mayoral candidates to discuss their platforms and take questions from a crowd of more than 100 party loyalists during its monthly meeting Wednesday night.

Council member Jamie Bennett, a Democrat with mayoral ambitions, recalled as a boy his fascination with President John F. Kennedy and years later how he campaigned for former President Bill Clinton.

"It's a nonpartisan world, but believe me, when we get to come out and be Democrats it feels good," he told the club.

The mayoral election is a nonpartisan race, but that doesn't faze party leaders eager to elect one of their own to one of the most powerful positions in Pinellas County.

Local Republicans say they, too, will devote time and campaign dollars toward a new Republican mayor.

"Let's face it, there is no such thing as nonpartisan," said Gail Hebert, president of the St. Petersburg Republican Club.

City Attorney John Wolfe said there are no guidelines to determine how political parties and party panderers behave during St. Petersburg's nonpartisan elections.

As a result, political observers argue that city elections have become increasingly partisan in recent years, culminating in the mayoral campaign of Democratic Party leader Ed Helm in 2005, which leaned heavily on the volunteer work of local Democratic foot soldiers.

"We have the most partisan nonpartisan races probably in the state of Florida," said Darryl Paulson, a professor of government and Florida politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

The 2009 election could be the city's most partisan race to date, Paulson said.

"There is a valid political reason for them to try to make it into a partisan race," he said. "It's an overwhelmingly Democratic city which has been governed by a Republican mayor for the past eight years. But the dilemma they face is you have to be careful in doing that because the people most likely to vote in St. Pete elections are people who want good government, and that means not being partisan in a nonpartisan race."

At the Democratic Club, candidates were given 15 minutes to address the crowd. The speeches highlighted the candidates' differences, despite their shared political party.

Bennett pointed to his eight years of leadership on the City Council and praised the city's current administration, especially First Deputy Mayor Tish Elston, whom he called "precious."

"These are going to be uneasy and uneven times," Bennett said. "You are going to look for a leader who has a calm and steady hand on the helm of this ship."

Candidate Paul Congemi, meanwhile, said he would drastically make over most of the city's institutions. Congemi, a former builder, said he would hire a new police chief and overhaul the department's narcotics division. He said he would launch a war on drugs, prostitution and poverty.

"I sincerely believe America is a country where we have so much that no one should have to sleep on our sidewalks, and no one should be hungry," Congemi said. "As mayor, I will host benefits to try to raise as much money for this as possible."

Wagman, a real estate broker and former business owner, also said he would take the city in a new direction.

"I am hearing people want new policies," he said. "They don't want to hear the same old drivel about why things can't be done."

Wagman said he would promote government transparency and use his business savvy to tackle the city's looming budget crisis.

"Right now our city faces unprecedented challenges," he said. "These challenges are going to require extremely strong management, fresh leadership and frankly, a nonpolitical approach."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

City election

The mayor and at least four council seats will be up for grabs in the city election. Candidates have until July to qualify for the September primary. The Democratic candidates for mayor so far are Jamie Bennett, 56, a council member; Paul Congemi, 52, a former builder; and Scott Wagman, 55, a real estate broker. Republican contenders are Bill Foster, 45, a lawyer; Deveron Gibbons, 35, a business executive; and Sharon Russ, 48, a minister. The mayor earns $162,314 and serves a four-year term.

Partisan fervor flavors St. Petersburg mayoral race 01/10/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 11:25pm]
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