Rick Kriseman stays on script as he tries to unseat Mayor Bill Foster

Mayoral candidate Rick Kriseman, at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club last week, insists that he’s a stronger leader and has better ideas than Mayor Bill Foster.
Mayoral candidate Rick Kriseman, at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club last week, insists that he’s a stronger leader and has better ideas than Mayor Bill Foster.
Published Oct. 20, 2013


He had waited years for that warm, blue-sky morning at Seminole Park. He wore a charcoal suit and a French-collared white shirt and a blood-red tie. His hair was parted down a streak of gray just over his left eyebrow. His eyes were clear, confident.

He stood in the long shadow of a pavilion, his hands gripping a podium adorned with a green sign: "A Plan for a Better St. Petersburg."

It was Oct. 2, the day Rick Kriseman would offer voters his biggest and best ideas. His campaign manager had billed it as a "major policy speech."

Mayor Bill Foster's challenger had long been criticized for a campaign spare of particulars, but rife with political clichés and overused comparisons to Foster's popular predecessor, Rick Baker.

No more.

Kriseman glanced down at a carefully crafted eight-page document. Four TV cameras rolled. Reporters readied their notebooks.

"I've said throughout this campaign that I love St. Pete," he read, "but that I love its potential even more."

Kriseman continued.

"I have specific ideas."

He opened with one about a statistics system that could make the city more efficient. He mentioned the need for partnerships, public and private. Seconds after a reference to Baker, as he talked about the environment, a gust of wind caught a nearby, propped-up posterboard. Kriseman tried, unsuccessfully, to catch it. The board collapsed, but the candidate didn't pause or acknowledge it. Not one to ad lib, he stayed on script.

Kriseman read on for 12 minutes, most of them filled with platitudes. He talked of growing the economy, improving the schools, restoring the neighborhoods. The first two questions that followed from reporters began with: "Can you be more specific . . . ?"

Defining Rick Kriseman isn't easy. It's as difficult to find someone who won't call him a nice guy as it is to find someone who will call him an inspiring leader.

What Kriseman would do as mayor remains unknown to voters largely because he hasn't told them, but maybe that's no accident. The 51-year-old has won five elections and been involved with politics since the mid 1980s. His campaign is heavily funded by the state Democratic Party and meticulously managed by five ambitious 20-somethings.

Seventy-two percent of St. Petersburg voters recently said they like where the city is headed but only 39 percent support Foster, the man in charge. The same poll found 40 percent backed Kriseman.

His most persuasive specific quality may well be that he is not Bill Foster.

• • •

As a kid, Kriseman didn't envision a future in politics, but talking out of both sides of his mouth, well, that he learned to do.

Sort of.

Kriseman idolized Edgar Bergen, the ventriloquist. He spent hours a day with his Danny O'Day puppet, practicing in front of the mirror. He worked bar mitzvahs and appeared on local TV shows.

At Boca Ciega High School, Kriseman began splicing together songs, mostly rock, so when he got to the University of Florida, he thought he had found a vehicle to stardom: disc jockey.

He worked fraternity parties and nights at a local radio station. He created Jewish comedy spoofs that management wouldn't air.

Kriseman's humor rarely appears on the campaign trail, but it's there. He can play the throat-tapping song from Animal House, and his Ronald Reagan impression is so well-known in political circles that Joe Lieberman once requested it.

As his college graduation neared, he still considered a future as a disc jockey. But Kriseman didn't like the hours, and his father disapproved. Donald Kriseman, dead since 2003, was a hardworking but harsh man, who his son acknowledged was deeply disappointed when he didn't take over the family hardware store.

So Kriseman turned to law, which his father found acceptable.

In 1986, at Stetson University, a friend named Lars Hafner asked him out of the blue to run his state House campaign. Kriseman warned he had no experience.

Hafner didn't win.

But Kriseman got a taste.

• • •

He first eyed a spot on the City Council in 1999. Then 36, Kriseman ran a safe race and spoke of a desire to "get us talking." His campaign signs read: "Richard D. Kriseman, Esq." He showed up obviously unprepared to a Tiger Bay debate and got skewered.

Kriseman lost, but learned.

His wife, Kerry, saw his desire to help people and pushed him to keep going. In 2000, Kriseman ran again for council but was appointed to a vacant seat before Election Day.

Kriseman became more adept at politics. He began to script what he would say because public speaking makes him nervous. "Richard" became "Rick" on campaign signs — "more folksy and friendly," he said.

He easily defended his seat in 2001 and 2003, but to many his tenure was unremarkable.

"I thought he would be a superstar. He turned out to be a disappointment," said Earnest Williams, a fellow Democrat who served with Kriseman for six years. "On major issues, he didn't have big visions."

"Rick is safe or careful to a fault," said Jay Lasita, another Democrat who served with him.

When Kriseman talks of his time on the council, he brags of how much he accomplished with Baker, who has not endorsed him and may well back Foster.

Leslie Curran, a Republican, remembered him as an active voice, always looking to improve the city. Asked for an example, she said Kriseman fought to stream online videos of meetings. "He was certainly a good councilman," she said.

He pushed to build a joint-use community library on the campus of St. Petersburg College and lobbied for countdown clocks on crosswalks. Kriseman, whose sister is gay, led efforts to expand the city's Human Rights Ordinance and was the first elected official to sign the St. Pete Pride Proclamation.

The decision to stand up for people came naturally.

In high school, Kriseman had worked as a trainer on the basketball team and was, for a time, the lone white kid involved. He once brought some of his black friends home, and his father objected. Kriseman, incensed, asked his father how he, a Jew, could be prejudiced. He didn't stop bringing his friends over.

"Rick doesn't look at people and judge them," said his sister, Nancy. "That's why he makes a really good politician."

• • •

Two weeks ago, Charlie Crist walked out of the lobby bathroom at the Wildwood Recreation Center in Midtown and slipped off his blue suit jacket.

Kriseman approached. He was on the verge of a seminal moment in his campaign — an endorsement from a former governor. The two men spoke quietly. Kriseman reminded Crist of his greatest accomplishments in the Florida House.

Moments later, as if on cue, a reporter asked the question.

Crist recalled Kriseman's push to give voters a chance to ban coastal oil drilling.

The effort failed.

"Unfortunately, the House got up there and voted it down," Crist said. "Rick was leading on it. If that's not leadership, I don't know what is."

But Kriseman's leadership in Tallahassee, and his partisanship there, have come under fire.

In the Capitol, Kriseman was an entirely different politician than he had been on council — an outspoken flag bearer for his party and a staunch critic of the opposition.

In 2011, Kriseman was named policy chair, a role in which he analyzed bills and instructed his colleagues how to vote. "If it's a bad bill, try to kill it," he said. "I did that very effectively."

Life for House Democrats is difficult. They are the minority party and have little control, so some, like Kriseman, focus on defeating other people's ideas rather than advancing their own.

A pair of Democrats who worked with Kriseman believe that concept is misguided.

"We were not fighting the Roman legion," said Frank Peterman. "If you have the ability to negotiate with people, you can make things happen."

State Rep. Betty Reed started in Tallahassee the same year Kriseman did. She called him a hard worker, a good guy, but not a consensus builder.

"It is a matter of being able to work across both sides of the aisle," she said. "He didn't do that, for whatever reasons."

Kriseman scoffed at the criticism, as did other colleagues.

State Rep. Darryl Rouson described Kriseman as, essentially, the bad cop. "Rick did the attack bombs. We cleaned up the shrapnel," he said. "Some of us were able to do things because Rick created the opportunity for us to collaborate."

• • •

Kriseman sat at a table in the mostly empty King & I restaurant on Central Avenue and tapped a golf pencil on the glass table top. He stared at the floor.

The knot on his lime-green tie was loose and his sleeves were rolled up. Circles lined his eyes.

He had been asked 10 or 15 seconds earlier to offer an example of a big, risky idea that he had pitched to voters — something he knew might alienate a few.

"I'm just trying to think of anything …," he said, trailing off. "I guess it depends on your point of view."

Some of what he has said about the Tampa Bay Rays' desire for a new stadium has made people unhappy, Kriseman suggested. "There's no doubt about that."

Then he perked up.

"Community policing," he said. His stance in favor of it has not been universally supported.

For months, Kriseman had pledged to return to the city's old method of assigning officers to neighborhoods. But that stance was muted weeks ago when he said he was open to other options.

Are his ideas meant to be safe?

"I don't think I'd say safe," he said. "I'd say common sense. And I don't think that's a bad thing."

Kriseman insisted that he's a stronger leader with better ideas than Foster, not just an alternative.

During recent debates, Kriseman has said his administration would focus on four issues, including an often-mentioned plan to create new jobs. He offered the details at the table: Hire a liaison to work with Midtown businesses and another to recruit green jobs from out of town.

How, specifically, those people would create jobs he didn't explain.

"I can't give you a blanket statement: This is what we're going to do for economic development in every instance," he said. "Some of it is just a matter of doing the job effectively."

• • •

On a recent Saturday morning, Kriseman readied for one of his final chances to knock on doors. He imagined such moments in 2008, but the timing was bad. His mom had died, his house burned down and he was diagnosed with a since-remedied blood disorder.

Last year, though, Kriseman began hearing, often, from people unhappy with Foster. He recognized the opportunity.

By just after 9 a.m., he and his 10-year-old son, Samuel, were in Kriseman's Hyundai Sonata headed to the campaign office to pick up a stack of glossy leaflets. On one side, they showed Kriseman with two elderly black women. It read: "A Mayor Who Will Look Out for Us."

Kriseman then drove to the 2800 block of Second Avenue S and, seconds later, his campaign manager arrived. Cesar Fernandez, 24, stepped out of his car with a can of Red Bull and a clipboard and explained to his boss the day's target: voters who had not yet submitted their mail-in ballots.

At one small home, an older man opened the door.

"Can I count on your vote?"

"You got it," the man said.

Inside, Ruby Boyd, 53, said she had seen him on TV.

"Did I do okay?"

"You did pretty good."

He asked what he could have done better, what mattered most.

Crime and jobs, they said.

"I'm going to work on those things," he said. "They're two of my biggest priorities."

"You're not just saying that to get the votes?" asked Boyd's twin, Ruth Henton.

No, Kriseman assured her as he began to leave. He meant it.

"Get Bill Foster out of there," Boyd said. "Bring Rick Baker back."

Kriseman smiled.

"Rick after Rick, right?"

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at or (727) 893-8472. Mark Puente can be reached at or (727) 893-8459.