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Four takeaways from the St. Petersburg City Council election

Voting and demographic data reveal another layer about the dynamics of the race.
St. Petersburg voters decided to keep two incumbents on the City Council (from left: Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, Ed Montanari) and elected two new members (Deborah Figgs-Sanders, Robert Blackmon). [Times]
St. Petersburg voters decided to keep two incumbents on the City Council (from left: Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, Ed Montanari) and elected two new members (Deborah Figgs-Sanders, Robert Blackmon). [Times]
Published Nov. 7, 2019
Updated Nov. 8, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Voter turnout is never very high in off-year local elections. Tuesday’s city election proved no different: Only about 20 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Yet there’s a national trend of higher turnout in off-year races since 2016, and Tuesday’s election fit right in. Turnout was up from 2015, the last city election without a mayoral race, when the turnout rate was only 17 percent.

About 33,000 ballots were cast in the four City Council races. Voters chose newcomers Robert Blackmon of District 1 and Deborah Figgs-Sanders of District 5. Both incumbent candidates — Ed Montanari of District 3 and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman of District 7 — held onto their seats.

ELECTION RESULTS: Find all of Election Night’s winners and losers at The Buzz.

In addition to turnout, an analysis of the voting and demographic data reveals another layer of information about the dynamics of the election. Here are a few more key takeaways.

Kriseman vs. Baker lives on

The 2017 mayoral fight between St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker was the most expensive in the city’s history, and experts have said the most partisan. The legacy of that election touched the races this week.

Each mayor backed two candidates who won. Baker backed Blackmon, Montanari and Trenia Cox, who lost in District 5. He didn’t endorse in the District 7 race. Kriseman announced his support for John Hornbeck in District 1, and backed Figgs-Sanders and Wheeler-Bowman. He didn’t endorse in the District 3 race.

There was a moderate relationship between voters’ support for Baker in 2017 and for Blackmon this week. In every one of the eight precincts where Baker earned at least 60 percent of the vote, Blackmon did the same. Precincts where Kriseman performed the best were more of a mixed bag in that District 1 race.

Partisanship plays

All City Council races are technically nonpartisan. But that doesn’t mean people don’t factor in the candidates’ party affiliation when casting ballots.

Of the eight candidates running for City Council seats, two were registered Republicans: Montanari and Blackmon. And Cox, a registered Democrat who ran against Democrat Figgs-Sanders, garnered support from a number of local Republican leaders.

Partisanship played a major role in the District 3 race between Montanari and Orlando Acosta. The Florida Democratic Party released ads on Acosta’s behalf that showed Montanari with Photoshopped “Make America Great Again” hats on and tried to tie Montanari to President Donald Trump.

Montanari’s performance was most closely correlated to the redness of voter precincts. In other words, the more Republican the neighborhood, the better he did.

It wasn’t all about the primary

In the three races that had August primaries, candidates found different paths to victory.

Montanari, who won a full 71 percent of the largely conservative District 3 in the primary, held on to that base in the general, winning 70 percent of its voters the second time around. That was key, because in the rest of the city, which includes more liberal precincts, he eked out barely more than 50 percent of the vote. Montanari finished with about 53 percent of the vote.

Figgs-Sanders finished the District 5 primary in second place, behind Cox. She earned just 30 percent of the vote in the primary (46 percent when considering only votes for her or Cox). On Tuesday, she slightly improved in her own district, growing her share to 48 percent in the general, and was able to earn 51 percent of the rest of the city. That was enough to propel Figgs-Sanders to a razor-thin, 2-point victory.

Wheeler-Bowman, like Montanari, won a strong majority in her primary race. She collected 57 percent of the vote, or 78 percent when considering only votes cast for her and her leading opponent, Eritha “Akile” Cainion. Wheeler-Bowman’s district totals dropped to 68 percent against Cainion in the general election. But she got 84 percent of the vote in the rest of the city. Wheeler-Bowman ended up winning with 82 percent of the vote.

Blackmon, who didn’t have a primary, won his seat with 64 percent of the vote.

Age matters

Much has been said about the youth vote being pivotal to the Democrats’ success in the 2018 midterm elections. And it’s well-known that older citizens are reliable voters. That truism proved itself in St. Petersburg.

The average registered voter in Pinellas County just turned 53. In St. Petersburg precincts where the electorate is older than that, turnout was 27 percent. In the younger precincts, it was less than 19 percent. But no candidate’s performance was substantially tied to a precinct’s age.

2019 ST. PETERSBURG ELECTION RESULTS

DISTRICT 1: Robert Blackmon handily wins St. Pete City Council District 1 race

DISTRICT 3: St. Pete council member Ed Montanari holds off District 3 challenger

DISTRICT 5: Deborah Figgs-Sanders takes razor-thin win in St. Pete’s District 5 council election

DISTRICT 7: Lisa Wheeler-Bowman easily wins re-election in St. Pete’s District 7 council race

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