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Tim Nickens

Who will stand out?

Here is a confession.

I have no clue who is going to be St. Petersburg's next mayor. I can't even predict with any confidence who will be the top two finishers in the Sept. 1 primary and advance to the November general election. And while the Times' editorial board is busy interviewing candidates, we will not be making our recommendation until later this month. So don't look for any hidden clues this morning — just don't mail in that absentee ballot yet.

Despite months of campaigning and a growing number of yard signs, I don't get the sense many St. Petersburg voters have focused on the mayor's race yet and reached any firm conclusions. That may be because there are 10 candidates. There is a top tier of maybe five, but there is no clear front-runner.

Or the lack of enthusiasm may be because there is no immediate crisis in St. Petersburg despite some of the candidates' best efforts to create one. There was a spat last week over a hot dog vendor being cited by police for violating a city ordinance for working after 9 p.m. Before that, there was a dust-up over a proposal to extend times for enforcing parking meters, sort of the third-rail of St. Petersburg politics.

Or it may be that Rick Baker has been mayor for so long nobody can envision anybody else in the job. Because of a change in the election schedule, Baker will have been in office nearly nine years by the time he leaves in January. With term limits at the local and state levels, that's more than a lifetime in politics anywhere but Washington.

By now, most voters should be sick of any mayor who's been around this long. That's not the case with Baker. He remains popular both in the neighborhoods and downtown, and he has a record of accomplishments that many mayors would envy. Downtown experienced a rebirth, and the inner-city areas of Midtown received substantial improvements. Enough attention was paid to most neighborhoods that the usual complaints about being neglected by City Hall largely faded away. The economic recession is on everybody's mind, but nobody blames the mayor for that.

This does not strike me as a change election. St. Petersburg has had only two strong mayors. The first, David Fischer, started as a weak mayor under the city manager form of government and was an ideal transitional figure with an even temperament and low-key style. Baker is the second and offers the only experience the city has with a truly strong mayor with an ambitious agenda who is comfortable wielding power and holding the spotlight.

The two candidates who would steer most sharply away from Baker are former City Council member Kathleen Ford, who lost the general election to Baker eight years ago, and former Pinellas Democratic Party chairman Ed Helm, who lost to Baker four years ago. Most of the rest would build on Baker's record in some fashion even as they developed their own management style and priorities.

As the editorial board spends an hour or so with each candidate, some common threads are becoming apparent. The obvious big-ticket issues — a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, a renovated Pier and a revitalized BayWalk — are going to have to evolve for a bit before any new mayor could move beyond generalities. And nobody has a magic solution for some of the city's most frustrating issues, including panhandling and the homeless. Short of buying one-way plane tickets as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has to make the homeless somebody else's problem, there's only so much that can be done.

In a couple of areas, there is reason to be encouraged. Most candidates for St. Petersburg mayor are praising Baker's efforts to improve and support the city's schools through mentoring programs, scholarships and business partnerships — and pledging to continue those efforts in some fashion. That is a wonderful legacy that certainly should be extended.

Most candidates also are pledging to work on something Baker has not done so well: Build better relationships with Pinellas County and its other local governments, and take a more regional view. Some are more committed than others, but there is general agreement that the recession will force governments to work more closely together and consolidate services.

There are a couple of trouble spots that are going to require broader public attention and are more challenging than determining when to enforce the parking meters. Several candidates have not minced words to describe their assessment of the quality of public education in St. Petersburg.

Businessman and investor Scott Wagman: "It's a catastrophe as far as attracting people to our city."

Former City Council member Larry Williams: "How do you right now say you would move your children here and put them in a public school?"

Several mayoral candidates also acknowledged that there is a widespread belief in St. Petersburg that there are two standards of law enforcement: One for the low-income, predominantly black inner-city neighborhoods of Midtown, and one for everywhere else.

"There is a perception out there that there is,'' said former City Council member Bill Foster, who would not say if he shares it. "I'm going to reserve that.''

Those are the sorts of difficult issues the next mayor of St. Petersburg will have to confront. While there is a large field of candidates, there is not one obvious choice who stands far above the rest. Hopefully, August will bring some clarity.

Who will stand out? 08/01/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 2, 2009 11:58pm]
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