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Romano: It all comes down to sewage in this mayoral race

At Tuesday’s debate, incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman said responsibility lies on him regarding the sewage crisis.
At Tuesday’s debate, incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman said responsibility lies on him regarding the sewage crisis.
Published Jul. 26, 2017

Well, poop.

Nothing else really matters, does it?

Schools, economic development, public safety? Pfft. The Rays stadium, affordable housing, the pier? Ack. When it comes to the St. Petersburg mayoral election, sewage is the yin, the yang and the yuck.

It's not that those other issues aren't important, but they aren't what's really dividing Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker. This election, wisely or not, is a referendum on whom you blame for past sewer problems and whom you trust to be in charge of future sewer fixes.

And that's what made Tuesday night's Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 debate so critical for Kriseman. This sewer mess belongs to him, no matter how desperately he would like to share it with others.

Sewer spills helped bring Baker into the race, and they've certainly helped propel him to the top of the polls. So it was up to Kriseman, in this lone televised debate, to make the case that he deserves a chance to finish the job.

And how did he do?

I thought, for the first time, Kriseman took a step in the right direction. He admitted it was a mistake to close the Albert Whitted treatment plant. And he acknowledged that, as the man in charge of the city, the responsibility ultimately rests with him. For the television audience and the 175 people or so in the Palladium Theater, it was like watching an addict finally confess to having a problem.

But I think Kriseman still tried to parse and deflect a little too much Tuesday night. A stronger buck-stops-here declaration is what people have been waiting to hear for nearly two years.

So it's entirely possible that this was too little and too late.

"Knowing what I know now, absolutely it was a mistake to shut down Albert Whitted," Kriseman said. "Quite frankly the other mistake I made, and every mayor before me made, we just didn't invest enough in the maintenance of the infrastructure.

"Clearly, I'm sitting in the seat. And while I rely on my people, it rests on me."

Baker, astutely, did not cede the issue. He jumped on the idea that Kriseman's initial impulse was to minimize the problem and point out everyone else's role.

"Well, he now says that he takes responsibility," Baker said. "But in the year and a half since it started, he's blamed it on former administrations, he's blamed it on climate change, he's blamed it on employees, he's blamed it on just about everyone else (without) taking responsibility."

Yes, Baker was smart to hammer that point home. It is, undoubtedly, why he has all the momentum. On the other hand, Kriseman still has time on his side.

Mail ballots might be en route, but the primary is still 34 days away. And if none of the six candidates exceeds 50 percent, the general election is almost 15 weeks away. That's plenty of time for Kriseman to change perceptions.

When the candidates weren't talking about sewers Tuesday night, the current mayor did a pretty good job of advancing his cause. The city is a different place than it was when Baker was mayor. In a lot of ways, it's a more progressive and forward-thinking city than when Baker was in charge.

No matter how many times he recites his resume and accomplishments, Baker is basically offering only one thing: stability.

He will be Papa Mayor. A throwback to simpler times. The one who sets Opie's curfew, and Aunt Bea's allowance. Stick-in-the-mud? Sure. But at least he's not sewage-in-the-bay.

Yet Kriseman scored points by noting that Baker's world view — his refusal to talk about President Donald Trump's agenda, the possibility of an Obamacare repeal, off-shore drilling, his past praise of Sarah Palin — does not align with an increasingly progressive city. And Baker did himself no favors by sidestepping all of those issues and accusing Kriseman of being too partisan.

Will that matter in a local race?

Kriseman better hope so.

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