Looking ahead to Kriseman vs. Baker

New Speaker of the Florida House, Richard Corcoran, R- Land O' Lakes, talks about the upcoming Florida Legislative session and a tight State budget during a press conference, Tuesday, 11/22/16 at the Florida Capitol.
New Speaker of the Florida House, Richard Corcoran, R- Land O' Lakes, talks about the upcoming Florida Legislative session and a tight State budget during a press conference, Tuesday, 11/22/16 at the Florida Capitol.
Published April 30, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Bill Edwards Group president Rick Baker spoke to the Tampa Bay Tiger Bay Club luncheon last week, promoting Tuesday's election asking voters to let city leaders negotiate a long-term lease for an expanded waterfront stadium if the Tampa Bay Rowdies become a Major League Soccer franchise.

The former mayor would not bite on questions about running for mayor again, but he is receiving loads of encouragement and many of his allies expect he will decide to take on incumbent Rick Kriseman.

So what would that race look like? Normally, an incumbent mayor leading a city widely seen as heading in the right direction should be in good shape for re-election. But Baker is no normal challenger, and Kriseman has managed to antagonize and/or disappoint groups and people, from fellow Democratic elected officials in City Hall to arts activists to business leaders in Midtown, who should be natural allies.

Here are seven things to watch in a Kriseman vs. Baker matchup that could be tight, unpredictable and possibly wrapped up in the "primary" election Aug. 29.

1. Partisanship. This is the biggie. The municipal election is officially nonpartisan, and the ballots won't even list the candidates' party affiliation. But you can count on Kriseman to make sure every voter knows that he is an ardent Democrat and that Baker is a die-hard Republican.

St. Petersburg has elected many Republican mayors over its history, but St. Pete is still an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, and Kriseman will do all he can to remind city residents that Baker worked to defeat Barack Obama and was a cheerleader for Herman Cain and Sarah Palin.

Donald Trump narrowly won Pinellas County, but Hillary Clinton clobbered him in St. Petersburg, winning nearly six in 10 votes. Baker kept his distance from Trump in 2016, but his presidency has energized Democrats in a way that is bound to help Kriseman.

Meanwhile, the Florida GOP will be eager to pick off a Democratic mayor in a key battleground area, but the state party's involvement could backfire if it helps Kriseman's argument that it is a partisan contest.

2. The black vote. This will decide the mayor's race. African-Americans are expected to make up about 18 percent of the electorate, and Baker has deeper and wider ties to the community than Kriseman. That's a big reason why Baker has transcended partisan considerations in the past and the biggest reason Kriseman should worry.

Baker will talk about the tangible improvements Midtown saw under his watch — a (since-closed) grocery store, a new bank and a post office. Kriseman will say investing in "people" is more sustainable and important than bricks and mortar, which may sound odd as he touts plans for a new $86 million police building.

3. Spending. A $90,000-a-year public works spokesman, $300 million for sewer repairs, the police headquarters and another $14 million for a new pier that many residents view as unneeded or unwelcome. Kriseman will say most of his campaign promises — progress on the pier, police station and a new stadium for the Rays — have been met. But count on Baker to question the spending, discipline and overall competence.

4. Bill Edwards. The super-rich Rowdies owner, Sundial developer, Mahaffey Theater operator, former mortgage seller and Baker boss could single-handedly bankroll Baker's campaign. He also could cause problems for Baker if it appears that one deep-pocketed backer (facing a pending whistleblower lawsuit accusing him of cheating veterans and taxpayers on VA loans) wields excessive influence.

5. Equality politics. St. Petersburg is a much more progressive city today than when Baker left office seven years ago, and that includes a stronger and politically active gay community. As mayor, Baker did not hide his uneasiness with gay residents, declining to attend or even sign proclamations for St. Pete Pride, the state's biggest gay-pride festival. This will be an issue.

On the other hand, it was Kriseman who seemed eager to oust the city's first openly gay City Council member, Steve Kornell, two years ago because they disagreed about the Rays stadium.

6. Sewer politics. The biggest albatross around Kriseman's re-election prospects is the roughly 200 million gallons of sewage spilled and dumped in 2015 and 2016, and the Kriseman administration's difficulty communicating candidly with the public. One of the fiercest debates between Kriseman and Baker would be how much responsibility does Kriseman bear and how much does Baker, for not having done more to fix the system when he was in charge.

7. Mail ballots. No Florida county is more conditioned to voting by mail, instead of in person, than Pinellas. Because so many residents are signed up to automatically receive mail ballots, thousands of St. Petersburg residents who normally only vote in presidential elections — Democrats, mostly — will receive ballots in the mail this summer. That could be an important opportunity for Kriseman.

Baker has played Hamlet many times before, flirting with runs for Congress, governor, chief financial officer and attorney general before deciding against it. That could happen again this year.

If it does, Kriseman will be the luckiest man in Florida politics.