St. Petersburg voters chose steady progress over abrupt change Tuesday by electing Bill Foster as the city's next mayor. Foster is the logical choice to succeed incumbent Rick Baker, and he won by reassuring voters he would build on recent accomplishments rather than dismantle them. Now Foster's challenge is to build upon his solid win over Kathleen Ford, unite the city and focus on meeting challenges ranging from declining tax revenues to a recent uptick in crime.
There is little time to celebrate. Before Foster takes office in January, he has to assemble a leadership team to help him run the city. He pledged on the campaign trail that he would downsize the administrative team in City Hall, but in short order he will have to be more specific about how he intends to reorganize and who will fill the key jobs. It is healthy for new mayors to bring in fresh faces, but Foster will have to find the appropriate balance between keeping experienced hands and adding new ones.
Foster's approach to law enforcement also will need a more thorough public discussion. His campaign pledges to increase attention on code violations and use community policing to improve the quality of life and discourage more serious crime have merit. So do his plans to step up the police presence downtown and to more aggressively go after drugs, prostitution and burglaries in Midtown. But the devil will be in the details, and he and police Chief Chuck Harmon will have to be on the same page or Foster will be hiring a new chief.
As the economic recession continues, Foster also will have to find more ways for the city to help businesses weather the storm. He needs to follow through on efforts to help re-energize the BayWalk retail complex, ease artists into vacant storefronts on Central Avenue and coach small shop owners on survival skills.
In other areas, the new mayor has more time. Baker and the current City Council — all four incumbents on the ballot were re-elected Tuesday — approved a responsible city budget for 2009-10 that does not decimate city services or unnecessarily drain reserves. Foster, who served 10 years on the council and supported Baker's conservative financial approach, should feel comfortable with implementing that budget while he pursues a more thorough spending review.
There also is no need to make snap decisions on the Tampa Bay Rays' interest in a new stadium. A community group analyzing the options will finish its work in the coming weeks, and Foster can use those findings as a starting point for further discussions with the Rays and the community.
Foster's support was not particularly deep, but it was wide enough to carry him to victory against Ford, who injected Democratic Party politics into a nonpartisan election. The 46-year-old lawyer won Tuesday's election by methodically building support in the business community and predominately black neighborhoods, where voters were slow to warm to him. He fine-tuned his pitch for steady progress and renewed optimism, and he became more confident as a speaker. He generally fulfilled his pledge to choose his words more carefully, and he will have to continue to pay close attention to his tone and message as mayor.
By rejecting Ford's second attempt to become mayor, voters again rejected the politics of division. Words matter, and Ford too often resorted to an us-versus-them approach regardless of whether she was talking about the Baker administration, the business community or racially identifiable neighborhoods. Foster offered a more inclusive, upbeat vision for the future.
While St. Petersburg faces its share of challenges, most voters believe the city is headed in the right direction. They reaffirmed that Tuesday by electing Foster as the city's third strong mayor, and he is well prepared to lead by consensus and build upon the solid foundation left by his predecessors.