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  1. Florida Politics

Rick vs. Rick vs. Irma: How to run for mayor during a hurricane

ST. PETERSBURG— As the city recovers after spending two weeks dealing with Hurricane Irma, the campaigns of incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker are slowly ramping back up.

SUNSHINE CITY SHOWDOWN: Keep up with the Tampa Bay Times coverage of the St. Petersburg mayoral race

But that doesn't mean they stopped trying to win votes during the storm.

Neither overtly campaigned for mayor while residents were preoccupied with spaghetti models and evacuation orders. But the two Ricks didn't lay low during Irma, either.

The stakes are high, especially after a razor-thin Aug. 29 primary. Mail ballots set to go out Oct. 3 — two weeks from Tuesday. Election Day is Nov. 7.

Kriseman and Baker recognized the importance of communicating to voters that they were present and compassionate during Irma, said Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

"There is always what I call a 'hidden campaign,'" the professor said. "You can't officially campaign. It's not the right thing to do.

"At the same time election clock is ticking and you only have so many days left. Especially in a deadlocked race like this one, every second of time is valuable. You have to find ways to let the public know you're around and doing your job."

As a sitting mayor, Kriseman was the face of the city's response to Irma. He coordinated relief efforts and gave regular updates on power outages and debris clean up on local television and social media. He also sent city workers door-to-door to deliver information to residents without power.

The mayor said he felt the storm's impact and what needed to be done most as he visited close to 100 homes a few days later on a walking tour with Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin.

"It was easy for people in the community whose houses weren't blown down with no trees on their house to think we really weren't impacted," Kriseman said. "But when you walk the neighborhoods that's when it hits you."

Baker managed to stay busy — and to stay visible — after the storm had passed.

Last week he hosted food truck meals in Midtown and helped to register residents for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, which anyone can do. However, Baker had announced that he was helping open a "FEMA Disaster Recovery Registration Center" which is not the same thing as an official FEMA Disaster Recovery Center. Kriseman supporters lambasted Baker on social media for opportunism and misusing FEMA's name. But Kriseman himself declined to join in.

"People that are helping the community, great," the mayor said.

The city opened its own disaster recovery centers on Friday, the same day Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston appeared at Baker's registration center and sprung for three food trucks to feed those who had gathered there.

The biggest frustration among residents were prolonged power outages, which for some lasted into Tuesday. It was also the one area that Baker found fault with the incumbent mayor.

When Duke Energy announced Friday night that it would fail to meet its self-imposed midnight deadline to restore all power to Pinellas County. Kriseman expressed his displeasure on social media. The mayor added to that criticism on Monday, saying communication with the utility worsened late last week and that he was frustrated by his own attempts to get information from Duke Energy.

"There really wasn't as much communication as I would have liked," Kriseman said.

Baker's campaign criticized the incumbent mayor, saying Kriseman should have acted sooner to spur Duke Energy to restore power more quickly.

"It's absolutely the job of the mayor to hold the power company accountable when our homeowners and businesses are without power," Baker said in a statement. "Unfortunately, it took Kriseman five days to speak up, and the sum of his response was a social media post."

Irma caused one of the largest natural disaster-related power outages ever recorded, at one point leaving 6.7 million customers — 62 percent of the state — without power immediately after the storm. Restoring power has been a frustrating process throughout Tampa Bay.

Kriseman declined to respond to Baker's criticism: "He can think whatever he'd like to think."

Criticizing a utility like Duke Energy is an easy way to deflect residents' ire away from an incumbent, Paulson said. So is a challenger blaming an incumbent.

"They're essentially doing the same thing: Blaming someone else for the problems that existed while at the same time saying they did everything possible," Paulson said.

In the end, the professor said, Kriseman's performance and Baker's efforts probably won't lead to a huge swing in votes either way.

The real problem from Irma may be that it wiped out two weeks from the mayor's race. A weary and distracted electorate may make the key to this election even more about turning out the base.

"That's why it's so much more important to get your hard-core supporters out," Paulson said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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