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  1. Florida Politics

Live from St. Pete: Kriseman, Baker square off in TV debate

Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, left, is challenging incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman. [Times files]
Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, left, is challenging incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman. [Times files]
Published Jul. 25, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — The mayoral race goes into the home stretch starting Tuesday.

More than 64,000 ballots are set to be mailed out to voters. And hours later the frontrunners, incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker, will square off in a live televised debate at 7 p.m. at the Palladium Theater.

The debate will be broadcast live by Bay News 9, giving the candidates one hour — and one more chance — to reach a wide swath of the electorate before ballots hit mail boxes across the city.

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

The Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9 are sponsoring the debate, which will be held in front of an invitation-only audience. The Times asked supporters of Kriseman and Baker how the candidates should approach this opportunity.

Kriseman should drive home the message that the city is generally doing very well, said City Council member Karl Nurse, who endorsed the mayor last week.

"From my perspective, he should stay positive and try to get people to realize how great things are going across the city," Nurse said.

One issue that will likely come up tonight is a draft report of a state investigation into the city's sewage crisis that the Times obtained last week. It was especially tough on the Kriseman administration for its actions and inaction leading up and during the 2015-16 crisis. However, it also blamed St. Petersburg's overall sewage woes on city leadership going back for two decades (which would include the Baker years from 2001-10).

Nurse said Kriseman needs to remind voters that he is fixing the problem.

"I think he needs to communicate to folks successfully that when the crisis came he worked on fixing it and we're on a path toward fixing it," Nurse said, "and generally the city is firing on all cylinders."

Baker, who is leading in local polls and has a significant fundraising lead, needs to do more of what he's already been doing, said City Council member Jim Kennedy, who is backing the former mayor.

"He needs to do what he's been doing: stay consistent on the issues," Kennedy said. "Highlighting the differences between him and Mayor Kriseman."

Kennedy said he would recommend Baker remind voters of his advocacy for city schools, his management style and his emphasis on fiscal responsibility. But he said the former mayor, who has heavily criticized Kriseman during the campaign, should also stay positive.

"You wind up comparing and contrasting," Kennedy said, "but (stay) positive first."

The Aug. 29 primary will have four other candidates on the ballot: Anthony Cates III, Paul Congemi, Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter and Jesse Nevel.

While all of the candidates have had the chance to appear together at several forums, only Baker and Kriseman were invited to the televised debate. The Times relied on fundraising totals to determine which candidates will participate.

Nevel, who is affiliated with the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, led a protest of his exclusion from the debate outside the Times' newsroom last month.

Uhuru supporters also shouted down other city candidates at a July 10 forum and even scuffled with Lassiter's supporters. That led debate organizers to forego distributing free tickets. Instead, the debate's audience will be invitation-only.

Ballots to military and overseas voters were sent out July 14. As of Friday, 31 of the 1,048 ballots have been mailed back to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent in the Aug. 29 primary, the top two vote-getters will square off in the Nov. 7 election.

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