Battle for the black vote in St. Petersburg splits allies, families

From left to right, former Mayor Rick Baker shakes hands with Goliath Davis as Leroy Lewis looks on before the mayoral candidate forum at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church on June 27. (EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times)
From left to right, former Mayor Rick Baker shakes hands with Goliath Davis as Leroy Lewis looks on before the mayoral candidate forum at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church on June 27. (EVE EDELHEIT | Times)
Published July 3, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Rick Baker or Rick Kriseman?

Among the couple of dozen African-American retirees playing dominoes at Lake Maggiore Park, the choice was nearly unanimous.

"I'm a Democrat, but I'm voting for Baker. Kriseman hasn't done anything for the south side. Everybody on the south side knows Rick Baker, but we never see Kriseman," said retired technical writer Arthur Jones.

"All you have to do is look at that lake right there," chimed in retiree Abner Jones, motioning to the 10-foot-high overgrowth blocking much of the city's largest lake from view. "Compare that to Crescent Lake (off 22nd Avenue North), which doesn't have anything like the weeds here. This lake was crystal clear when Baker was mayor. They spent millions cleaning it up."

The perception that Baker, mayor from 2001-2010, was more attentive to heavily African-American neighborhoods is common among the city's black voters and could be fatal to Kriseman's re-election prospects. Never in modern history has anyone been elected St. Petersburg mayor without winning overwhelming support from the city's predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

African-Americans typically account for about 15 percent of the electorate, though that has risen as high as 21 percent. Both candidates took sizable margins in the Midtown area in their last mayoral elections. Baker won 91 percent of the votes in Midtown's precincts in his 2005 race against longshot challenger Ed Helm, and Kriseman won 76 percent in 2013 against incumbent Mayor Bill Foster. (Midtown made up 6 percent of the votes cast in that last mayoral election.)

Baker's team expects to win the black vote, but contends that even keeping it close would unseat Kriseman. A recent automated St. Pete Polls telephone survey showed Kriseman and Baker effectively tied among African-American voters and Baker leading citywide by nearly 5 percentage points.

"Rick Kriseman has a strong record of diversity, addressing poverty, pushing for justice reform and equity and the rest of this campaign has to be devoted to conveying that to the average person," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who, like most African-American elected officials from St. Petersburg, backs Kriseman.

"He has to go all out to get the message out in terms of his history," Welch said. "I don't think it's too late, but time is definitely growing short."

Welch supported Baker in his campaigns for mayor in 2001 (against Kathleen Ford) and 2005 (Helm). When Baker announced that first campaign, he did it from the accounting office of Welch's father, former City Council member David Welch.

This year's mayoral race is splitting longtime political allies and families.

Ken Welch's cousin, Ricardo Welch, is featured in one of two TV ads the Baker campaign is airing. Likewise, Baker is leaning heavily on a longtime and often controversial political ally: former police Chief and Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, the cousin of Kanika Tomalin, Kriseman's deputy mayor.

"Goliath's ongoing interest in St. Pete's political landscape is interesting, especially given that he has relocated to North Florida and lives here only part-time," Tomalin said. "He campaigned for Rick Kriseman in the last general election. He campaigned for Kathleen Ford in the primary before that. His favor seems to be easily gained and easily lost."

During a debate at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, Baker touted his support from Davis.

"I will make sure, in the model of Go Davis, that we do have accountability with our police officers," Baker declared.

Davis and two other former police officials, Al White and Cedric Gordon, have long led a political machine turning out the black vote. The ubiquitous Baker campaign signs already in southern St. Petersburg are evidence of their handiwork.

"I think they're responsible for a lot of traction Baker's getting in the community," said the Rev. Clarence Williams of Greater Mount Zion AME Church, a fan of Davis and Baker, who has endorsed Kriseman. ("I would sleep great at night with either of these men leading our city," he said.)

Davis is a polarizing figure in St. Petersburg, having been fired in 2011 by former Mayor Bill Foster after refusing to attend the funerals of two St. Petersburg officers killed by a fugitive whose funeral Davis did attend, because he knew the killer's family.

Prompted by a question from White, a former sergeant, Baker suggested in the debate that as mayor he would push out current police Chief Tony Holloway unless he moved into the city limits from Clearwater. Baker also left the door open to rehiring Davis for a senior position in his administration, although Davis, 66, currently lists his home address in Quincy, more than 300 miles north of St. Petersburg.

"I'll make hiring decisions after the election," Baker texted.

Baker's now-grown son and daughter were baptized in the largely black 10th Street Church of God, and his long career in civic affairs, politics and government have given him deep roots and a large network in the city's black community.

"I went to school with his daughter, I've spent the night at his house. He is really, really nice," 21-year-old Ka'leah Spells said of Baker, while getting her hair done at Against the Grain Barber Shop on 16th Street S.

"Kriseman's a nice guy, and he may even be gaining on Rick Baker, but Baker is more outgoing and he did a lot for Midtown," said Willie Peak, working at a 16th Street S thrift shop.

Kriseman, who represented mostly white voters in west St. Petersburg as a City Council member and state representative, mainly started building relationships in his first campaign for mayor.

"He didn't know anybody. No one knew him, so I introduced him around," said state Rep. Wengay Newton, a Democrat who supported Kriseman four years ago but now backs Baker because he says Kriseman has not adequately funded programs for at-risk children.

Kriseman's campaign is trying to highlight his history as a proud Democrat and Baker's as a Republican, but many black Democrats recall Baker's work bringing to Midtown businesses like a now-closed supermarket and credit union, along with myriad government services.

Baker blames the Kriseman administration for taking its eye off the ball and not doing enough to stop the closing of Sylvia's restaurant and a Walmart supermarket.

Kriseman says his priority is for sustainable, longer-lasting improvements to the community. He points to creating the Southside Community Redevelopment Area to add more resources, his diverse administration, his promotion of higher wages, local hiring by city vendors and his push for criminal justice reform.

Tomalin, the deputy mayor, noted that Baker is pointing to a nine-year record, where some of his accomplishments came to fruition in his second term. Kriseman has not yet finished one term.

"Both have done great things to advance St. Pete and Mayor Kriseman is on track to deliver even greater success," she said. "The strides being made with poverty reduction, neighborhood revitalization, projects that are in development on the 22nd Street corridor, Skyway Marina District, Innovation District and other neighborhoods south of Central are transforming St. Pete's south side and will be regarded with as much favor as Baker's contributions in a time to come."

Baker responded: "Rick Kriseman's staff is trying to rewrite history. Sweetbay grocery store opened during my first term, as did the Royal Theater, Johnson Community library . . . and many other Midtown projects. Rick Kriseman has done little in Midtown."

Pinellas School Board member Rene Flowers supported former Mayor Foster over Kriseman four years ago. She now backs Kriseman and said it is wrong to blame him for the closing of Midtown businesses like Sylvia's, Walgreens and Walmart. She said people should not exaggerate Baker's accomplishments in African-American neighborhoods.

"When you're doing something, there should be sustainability so that when you leave office there, what you left behind will have forward movement," she said.

Kriseman's campaign hired Vito Sheeley to lead African-American voter mobilization efforts, and Sheeley said the job is all about educating people and refreshing their memory about Kriseman's record.

Mail-ballot voting starts in less than a month, and election day in less than eight weeks. If no one surpasses 50 percent of the vote on Aug. 29, a runoff election will be held Nov. 7.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there," lamented City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, a Kriseman supporter who hears a lot of people skeptical about the mayor's commitment to African-American neighborhoods.

"Working with Mayor Kriseman and his staff, I know he is passionate about the south side, and passionate about getting development and jobs on the south side," she said. "But a lot of people are visual and they want to see stuff going on."

Times staff writer Nathaniel Lash contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @AdamSmithTimes.