John Romano: Kathleen Ford makes mayoral race more interesting

Kathleen Ford, center, announces her candidacy for Mayor of St. Petersburg, Monday, April 15, 2013, at Demens Landing Park with the St. Petersburg Pier in the background.
Kathleen Ford, center, announces her candidacy for Mayor of St. Petersburg, Monday, April 15, 2013, at Demens Landing Park with the St. Petersburg Pier in the background.
Published Apr. 16, 2013

The race for the next mayor of St. Petersburg just got more interesting.

Also potentially more expensive, complicated, contentious and humorous.

But for now we'll stick with interesting.

Twelve years, seven months and two weeks after announcing her first attempt at the mayor's office, Kathleen Ford has once again dusted off the resume.

She wasn't very specific about her plans on Monday, but sequels are rarely driven by their details. So you might assume Ford's message will sound vaguely familiar.

City Hall establishment?

Shake it up.

Mayor Bill Foster?

Shove him out.

Sounds simple enough, but this was also territory that former City Council member and state House representative Rick Kriseman was expected to explore.

Kriseman may not approach life or campaigns with Ford's antipathy or bluntness, but the anti-Foster crowd would be a natural audience for him to court.

"This is a heavy blow to Rick Kriseman," said Scott Wagman, who ran fourth behind Foster, Ford and Deveron Gibbons in the 2009 primary. "An awful lot of Kathleen's people would have naturally gravitated toward Rick."

Kriseman said Monday he was unconcerned about anything outside of his own campaign but, at the very least, it has to change his thinking before the August primary.

It is true Foster's approval ratings have been in a steady decline in recent months and now appear to be below 50 percent, but there is no way he won't survive the primary.

That means Kriseman will have to turn some of his attention — and campaign funds — toward getting past Ford.

"Rick is a very nice man. And he will have a lot of appeal to the moderate and progressive voters who aren't impressed with Kathleen," said Wagman, who has become a Foster supporter since 2009. "But she's latched on to an issue with the Pier, and she has a lot of name recognition and a lot of followers."

Put her in a crowded primary, and Ford looks like a legit contender.

Because when the vote is split among a handful of candidates, it may take only 20 to 30 percent to move on to a runoff. And Ford's following is loyal enough to pull that off.

She finished second with 25.7 percent of the vote in the 2009 primary (1.3 points behind Foster) and 21.4 percent in 2001 (3.8 points behind Rick Baker).

Yet when they went head-to-head in the general election, Foster beat her by 6 points and Baker crushed her by 14.

The inference is that her scorched-earth message does not translate very well when it's time to appeal to voters outside of her constituency.

And that may be a weakness Kriseman will try to exploit.

Ford had a shot in two mayoral elections and didn't really come close to victory. She also has never been a strong fundraiser, and Kriseman's campaign is already raking in a lot of cash.

So as Kriseman appeals to voters looking for a change at City Hall, he can simultaneously hammer home the point that he is the only candidate with a real chance of beating Foster.

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But even that will be tricky because Kriseman and Ford will be courting the other's supporters between the primary and runoff.

Sounds interesting, doesn't it?