1. Florida Politics

St. Pete mayoral candidates continue to campaign despite paltry crowds

Voters come and go Tuesday morning at the Coliseum Ballroom in St. Petersburg.
Voters come and go Tuesday morning at the Coliseum Ballroom in St. Petersburg.
Published Aug. 27, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — All three mayoral candidates got up early this morning, voted and readied themselves for a last-minute push to sway voters in their direction.

Their hands were ready for shaking, their signs were planted in seemingly all available grass and their supply of buttons was well stocked.

Just one thing was missing: their voters.

As of 2 p.m., nine random polling locations throughout St. Petersburg reported a paltry 5.6 percent turnout, according to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office. However, a record number of residents — 29,239 — have already voted by mail.

Among the meager crowds, the Times polled a random sampling of residents on how they voted in the mayoral race and on the referendum to cancel the city's contract to build the Lens, estimated to cost $50 million.

Of the 21 people questioned on the pier, 14 opposed it and seven supported it — although a few were confused by the referendum's seemingly contradictory language, which instructed people to vote "no" if they supported the Lens.

Before he filled out his mail ballot, Carter Reid, 80, got a flyer telling him to vote "no" on the pier. Reid, who lives in south St. Pete, firmly opposes the Lens design, so that's how he voted.

But Reid actually meant to vote "yes" to cancel the contract for the Lens, a mistake he realized several days ago while watching the news on TV.

"I just made a mistake," he said on Tuesday. "I'm an educated person and I didn't read the damn ballot."

The same problem befell a man and woman who were walking out of the polling station at the Child's Park Recreation Center.

The Lens "is a waste of taxpayers' money," said the man, who refused to give his name. He had voted "no."

Opinions on St. Pete's next leader were more muddled. The Times sampled 12 people. Five said they voted for Kathleen Ford, four favored Mayor Bill Foster and three chose Rick Kriseman.

"I think she's ready to step in and bring all the communities together," Latasha Lowe said of Ford. "Plus, females are always right."

Lowe, 33, an insurance claims representative, also voted to cancel the Lens contract, which Ford has pushed hard to voters. Lowe was among a trickle of voters who cast their ballots before 9 a.m. at the Coquina Key Neighborhood Association.

Mike and Nancy Moore, both 59, each voted to keep Foster in place.

"I like the fact that the crime rate is down in St. Pete," said Mrs. Moore. "And I love the way the downtown area looks."

Both favored the Lens project as well.

Most who supported said they did, at least in part, because they didn't want the project to continue dragging on.

"I like the idea that it's something new, that it creates a high buzz," said Mark Cordasco, 45. "I think St. Pete is kind of stuck in the old, and I think this will push it forward."

Cordasco, a dealer at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, also supports the mayor to stay in office.

Mike Greene, 55, of Coquina Key, used to believe in Foster, but stalls in the city's plan for midtown led him to change his mind. He now supports Kriseman.

"The mayor is for predominately white citizens over here in St. Petersburg," he said. "Kriseman, I think he's been a little more clear on his position."

Greene adamantly opposes the Lens but he doesn't like the Pier either. He hopes they tear down the inverted pyramid and instead build a lengthy fishing pier.

Another man who voted for Foster, retiree David Murphy, 69, seemed to do so for the wrong reasons.

"He's a Democrat," Murphy said, "and I only vote for Democrats."

Aside from the fact that the mayor's race is nonpartisan, Foster is actually a Republican, which Murphy refused to believe. He told a reporter to "ask anyone" about the mayor's political allegiance.

Foster began his day early, waking up 3:30 a.m. Four hours later, he was greeting voters at the Northeast Presbyterian Church on Shore Acres and talking about the Lens.

"Having no pier," Foster said, "is not an option."

Ford voted at First Church before 8 this morning, and then hit the road with signs.

"We're campaigning hard," Ford said. "We think this is going to be a very close race."

Mayoral candidate Rick Kriseman stopped by Trip's Diner on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard after voting.

"I'm not overconfident, but I am confident," said Kriseman.

Kevin McKnight, 43, a dishwasher at the restaurant, said he wasn't voting and never has.

"It won't make a difference, in my life," said McKnight. "They're going to elect who they're going to elect. My vote don't count."

The polls opened at 7 a.m. and will remain open until 7 p.m.

At Northeast Presbyterian Church, Jason McElhaney, 33, of St. Petersburg walked out with his wife, Erin McElhaney, 30, both wearing "I Voted" stickers.

"I'm proud," he said. "We researched the Lens plan beforehand, so today was easy."

Cate Martin, the clerk of Precinct 154 at First Church of Christ on 1st Street Northeast, said that voter turnout had been steady since the doors opened at 7 a.m.

Walking into the church to vote, Kim Carr, 55, of St. Petersburg talked about her disapproval of the Lens plan.

"It's a great piece of art, but I don't think it's functional," said Carr. "It won't stand the test of time."

The language of the ballot referendum on the St. Petersburg Pier has drawn frequent criticism, but many voters didn't seem to mind.

"It does seem backwards: vote 'yes' to stop the contract, and 'no' to approve it," said Sandy Bowron, 66, of St. Petersburg. "Yes means no, and no means yes, but there was so much publicity on it. It wasn't a surprise to me. I understood."

Josh Frank, 37, and Amber Fair, 31, voted together at First Church.

"I don't even understand," said Frank, throwing up his hands in mock confusion over the St. Petersburg Pier referendum. "No, I completely do. We completely understand the Pier situation. We've read every article."

None of the mayoral candidates impressed him, said Frank.

"In the end," he said, "I'm just going with who I think's going to win."

Eugene Groves, 53, wheeled his bike, heaped with his sleeping bag, down Fourth Street North near the St. Petersburg Coliseum, where downtown voters flocked. Homeless for a third year now in Florida, he did not know it was election day, he said.

"I'm just trying to make it another day," said Groves.

He was against the new plan for the Pier, though, he said.

"Why do they have to build a new one? Nothing was wrong with the old one," he said, adding that he used to enjoy sitting on the Pier with his sleeping bag when it was open.

At the Coliseum, a poll worker offered a mail-in ballot to Jim Kochen, 72, who waved it aside.

"No, I don't believe in mailing it in," said Kochen. "I like being here in person."

But Terry Porter, 69, and his wife, Debbie Davis, 59, took a ballot, saying maybe they would skip the booths on the next election day.

"I kind of like coming, though," said Porter. "It's more patriotic than just voting between commercials."

Porter owns Vinoy Boat Club and Rental near the Pier, he said, and he hates the Lens Plan -- the proposed walkway is too long, and not enough shops and business are included in the design, he said.

"Who wants to walk a quarter mile in 98, 99-degree weather?" said Porter. "I want more activities and places that will bring tourists."

He lowered his voice when he noticed a woman handing out "Build The Pier" pamphlets in the parking lot.

The woman, 36-year-old Allison Stribling, just moved to St. Petersburg from Tallahassee. Volunteeering with a Lens campaign group was her way of asserting her opinion in the election, she said, though she couldn't vote in St. Petersburg this time.

"This is my way," said Stribling.

She offered a flier to Elizabeth Vanneste, 52, as Vanneste hurried to her car after voting.

Vanneste laughed at the language of the flyer: "Build The Pier, Vote No."

"My nine-year-old said, 'Mommy, isn't that bad English?'" said Vanneste to Stribling. "'It sounds like they're asking people to vote against the Pier.' My nine-year-old!"