The majority of St. Petersburg voters who believe the city is headed in the right direction cannot afford to skip today's election. Voters will select a new mayor and decide five City Council races. The outcomes will determine whether City Hall builds on St. Petersburg's recent successes or retreats. While this campaign season has been less than inspiring, a small voter turnout could enable outside factors and a small band of disaffected residents to chart a new direction that would not be for the common good.
For example, Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark's overreliance on voting by mail could skew the results in unintended ways. More than 20,000 St. Petersburg voters already have cast ballots, meaning as much as half the vote could be in before the polls open today. Thousands of those ballots were cast before mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford used a derogatory racial term in reference to Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis III on a radio show, then dodged reporters for days before illogically claiming she was set up. How many of those voters would like their ballots back?
Another new dynamic is the Florida Democratic Party's attempt to turn the nonpartisan mayoral election into a partisan one. The state party has paid for several mailings for Ford, and local activists curiously have tried to tie her campaign to Barack Obama's in 2008 to energize party activists and black voters. There is no connection in policy priorities or governing style, and political party affiliation has nothing to do with ensuring that garbage is picked up and the streets are safe. But voters also should wonder why third-party groups are paying for last-minute mailers for mayoral candidate Bill Foster and City Council candidate Steve Kornell.
A recent St. Petersburg Times poll found 59 percent of St. Petersburg voters believe the city is headed in the right direction and rate incumbent Mayor Rick Baker's performance as excellent or good. Those voters should be inclined to vote for Foster, who supported Baker's key initiatives as a City Council member and would build upon the city's successes. Ford was a divisive council member and would take the city in a different direction.
Voters also should choose carefully in the five races for City Council. The council has made some disappointing decisions, including annexing a portion of Tierra Verde to benefit powerful developers. But it has worked well with Baker and acted responsibly in managing the city's finances amid declining tax revenues. The four incumbents recommended by the Times are better qualified than their challengers, and continuity and experience on the council will be particularly important as a new mayor takes office. This is not the year to cast a protest vote for an unfamiliar candidate.
St. Petersburg voters usually favor steady progress over abrupt changes in direction. For that tradition to continue, voters who have been largely silent in this campaign season have to go to the polls today and be counted.