ST. PETERSBURG — St. Petersburg voters may not be overly enthusiastic about Mayor Bill Foster, but with the primary election a month away, they are not particularly dissatisfied with the job he's doing either.
A Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and WUSF Radio poll shows Foster leading his main challengers Kathleen Ford and Rick Kriseman collectively and in head-to-head contests. While 28 percent of the voters remain undecided before the Aug. 27 primary, more than 70 percent say he is doing either a good or average job as mayor.
Foster captured 30 percent of the vote compared to Ford's 20 percent and Kriseman's 17 percent. While that suggests that more of those decided voters would opt not to give Foster a second term, Foster bests both Ford and Kriseman in individual matchups. It would appear that no candidate is generating great enthusiasm and that the African-American vote in St. Petersburg may continue to play a significant role in the outcome as it has in past elections.
The poll, conducted July 13-16 by Braun Research of New Jersey, has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. The survey polled 810 registered voters who said they definitely will vote in the primary.
"It's a hard choice," said Dorothy Bell, 75, who lives in Pinellas Point and said she's wavering between Foster and Kriseman.
Joe Troy, 53, said he also feels pulled between those two candidates.
He doesn't think Foster has shown leadership on the city's biggest issues, yet he doesn't know enough about Kriseman to support him.
A real estate agent who lives in the Old Northeast, Troy said he ruled Ford out after she skipped multiple debates.
The poll also found:
• About 36 percent of voters rated Foster's job performance as good or excellent. Another 35 percent ranked his work average. By comparison, 25 percent rated him as not so good or poor.
• In a two-person race between Foster and Ford, the mayor captured 49 percent of the vote compared to Ford's 43 percent.
• In a race between Foster and Kriseman, Foster bested Kriseman 49 percent to 40 percent.
The poll's findings come the same week that 61,453 ballots are being mailed to voters, the highest number ever for a city election.
Even with an early lead, Foster said the next week will be crucial.
"There's still a lot of work to be done," said Foster, 50. "People are voting. We're confident things will go our way."
He believes he will win the black vote. "It takes more than yard signs to earn people's vote and trust. You must have a record of service and accomplishments," he said.
Among black voters, the poll found that 72 percent approved of Foster's performance, yet more black residents said they would vote for Ford than Foster in a three-way race.
Ford captured 28 percent of the black vote, compared to Foster's 25 percent and Kriseman's 8 percent. Thirty-two percent of black voters said they were undecided — the largest undecided bloc in the poll.
In a two-way race, Ford came out on top among black voters, with 51 percent of the vote compared to Foster's 43 percent.
In a Foster-Kriseman match-up, the black vote returned to the mayor, with 53 percent supporting the mayor and 31 percent supporting Kriseman.
Ford gained momentum in the black community in May after Goliath Davis, a former police chief and deputy mayor, all but endorsed Ford, calling her a viable candidate.
Ford signs seemed to sprout up overnight in predominantly-black neighborhoods south of Central Avenue.
But in recent weeks, Ford has taken heat for skipping multiple debates, her absences punctuated by someone in a bright yellow chicken suit holding a sign that says: "Kathleen Ford: Too chicken to debate Foster + Kriseman."
Ford, 56, said Foster has neglected neighborhoods and city services.
"I certainly appreciate the hard work of all my supporters," said Ford, noting that she will attend five upcoming debates.
She attributed her support in the black community to residents hearing her campaign message.
Kriseman, 50, said he is undeterred by the poll.
He said voters like his ideas for moving the city forward, ideas that differentiate him from Foster and Ford. All three candidates are former City Council members and lawyers by trade.
Kriseman said Foster is still trying to figure out how to describe his accomplishments while Ford is only talking about what she doesn't like.
Ford hurt herself by skipping the forums, he said.
"People want to hear where you stand on the issues," he said. "We're going to be in the runoff in November."
Voters who have picked a candidate feel passionately.
Lenn Neff, 64, counts himself squarely in Kriseman's camp. He feels that Kriseman cares about residents. He said he can't forget Ford's tenure on council, which he thought "was a disaster."
Jim Paynter, 53, said he supports Ford because the mayor botched the plan to replace the Pier. "She works with the people," Paynter said. "She is more understanding."
Sandra Wooldridge, 76, said she likes that Foster holds monthly breakfasts and evening events. She rated his performance as excellent.
"He makes himself very available," she said. "He's very interested in the city and how it does."