Is Darden Rice running for St. Pete mayor? She’s raising money like she is.

Her fundraising has drawn the ire of current Mayor Rick Kriseman.
St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, center, is raising money through a political committee. She won't say what for, though it's speculated she'll run for mayor. [SCOTT KEELER  |   Times]
St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, center, is raising money through a political committee. She won't say what for, though it's speculated she'll run for mayor. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published April 23, 2019|Updated April 23, 2019

St. Petersburg city council member Darden Rice won’t say if she’s running for mayor in 2021.

But the fifth-year progressive is raising money for something — political committee Friends of Darden Rice has collected more than $30,000 since its inception in January, according to state campaign finance records.

Rice said it's to "lay the groundwork for my next step."

"If you look at the numbers of what's been raised in previous mayoral races, it means that people have to start earlier," she said. "There's nothing wrong with reaching out to people early on and reaching out to people as early as possible."

Though, her zealous fundraising has earned her some shade from City Hall's current occupant.

“We are just over a year into my second term and this year’s council races have yet to even heat up, and so it’s both unusual and disappointing that fundraising and campaigning for mayor has already begun," Mayor Rick Kriseman, who is term-limited, said in a statement. "I believe all Americans, and certainly the residents of this city, want elected officials to focus more on policy and doing their jobs as opposed to perpetual fundraising and campaigning for their next elected office.”

Rice, who was not aware of the Mayor’s discontent until told by a reporter, clapped back, calling Kriseman’s statement “poor form” and “hypocritical given that he’s raising money now for his own (political action committee).”

"I'm one of the hardest working members on council, which cannot be disputed, and I'm one of his strongest allies," she said. "For the mayor to suggest that somehow my eye is off the ball, is, frankly, insulting."

Rice isn’t the only one eyeing Kriseman’s office. Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch has also said he’s considering a run.

Kriseman’s political committee, Sunrise PAC, went on a fundraising spree late last summer, raising $54,500 from July through November, records show. It has raised another $5,500 since Feb. 1, and currently has $35,000 in its coffers. Finance records for April for both politicians’ committees were not yet available.

Both Kriseman and Rice were reelected in 2017.

Kriseman has previously said he’s not sure what he’ll do next, and that he’s raising money to back candidates and causes he supports. He recently dismissed a rumor he would challenge U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, calling the congressman a friend.

Rice, who has often opposed developers during her tenure on City Council, has taken $5,000 each from two prominent developers — her largest donations to date. One is John Catsimatidis, the New York billionaire behind Red Apple Group, which plans to build the city’s tallest tower on a block it owns along Central Avenue between Fourth and Fifth streets. The other is Peter Leach, senior vice president of development at Southport Financial Services.

Leach said he gave to Rice because “I think she’d be a very good mayor for St. Pete.”

"Kind of that simple," he said.

Leach, a Democrat who says he supports women in government, has also given $14,000 to Tampa mayoral candidate Jane Castor’s political committee.

Catsimatidis, who in 2013 ran for New York City mayor as a Republican, did not return an email.

Rice said accepting those contributions isn’t a conflict of interest for her.

“I think I have a record of votes against bad development, but I most certainly support smart growth in the city,” she said.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or Follow @ByJoshSolomon.