Darden Rice files to run for St. Petersburg mayor

The two-term City Council member has raised more than $220,000 and is the early frontrunner.
St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice will file to run for mayor on Tuesday.
St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice will file to run for mayor on Tuesday. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 12, 2021|Updated Jan. 12, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — Two-term City Council member Darden Rice filed to run for mayor on Tuesday.

While she has long been considered a likely candidate, her official entrance into the race makes her the early frontrunner. Her political committee, Friends of Darden Rice, began fundraising in 2019 and has raised more than $220,000.

“I’m running for mayor because I love St. Pete, I’m passionate about the city and I want to see the city thrive,” Rice, 50, said by phone Tuesday. “I think for the most part, the city in a lot of ways is heading in the right direction. But like any big city, we still have our challenges, and we still need to work on different approaches.”

If elected, her top priority will be overseeing the city’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, both in terms of public health and the economy. After that, she wants to tackle the city’s biggest issues: growing in a manner that is equitable for all neighborhoods and residents, creating more affordable housing, protecting the environment, offering more transit, developing the Tropicana Field site and remaining committed to fixing up the city’s aging infrastructure.

Rice also announced a first-term goal of universal pre-kindergarten and community college.

Rice called the Trop development “a generational project” that can “transform the city,” but one that is moving forward amid considerable uncertainty: the future of the Tampa Bay Rays remains unknown and 2021 is the last year in office for Mayor Rick Kriseman, who has thus far spearheaded the development effort. Kriseman’s administration has asked developers to submit their grand visions for the site; proposals are due Friday.

Rice said she doesn’t want to halt all progress until a new mayor is seated and the Rays decide their fate, but she stressed the project must go forward “thoughtfully and thoroughly, and we’ve got to continue to engage the city through the entire process.”

“We don’t want to rush this process,” she said.

Rice, a registered Democract, was the first openly gay person to run for office in St. Petersburg, running a formidable campaign but nonetheless losing in 2005. She ran again and won in 2013 and was reelected in 2017.

She was previously president of the League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area and currently chairs Forward Pinellas, the county’s land use and transportation agency. She is on the board of Tampa Bay Water.

Throughout her tenure on City Council, Rice has been an advocate for the environment, founding a council committee on health, energy, resilience and sustainability.

Related: Who’s not running for St. Petersburg mayor?

With Kriseman being termed out, Rice is one of several high-profile candidates likely to run. Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch has said he will run, and he has already secured endorsements from U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and City Council member Lisa-Wheeler Bowman, Rice’s colleague. Former state Rep. Wengay Newton has already filed his paperwork. A 20 year old, Michael Ingram, has also filed to run.

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Rice was elected to City Council the same year Kriseman became mayor. And the pair’s agenda have often aligned, notably on environmental and green issues. Nonetheless, Rice said she wasn’t running as his successor.

“I think Kriseman has done a lot to point the city in the right direction, and I have certainly been a strong partner in carrying out many parts of his agenda,” she said. “But I have my own style. I’m a woman. I will certainly continue to work on the progress of our city, but I’m a different person and I’ll be a different mayor.”

In particular, she said she will have a different relationship with City Council: “I think it hasn’t been a secret that there is some dissension between council and mayor.”

One style difference will manifest immediately. Despite the campaign and office being nonpartisan, Kriseman in 2017 ran a campaign rife with the bitterness of partisan politics, defeating Republican former Mayor Rick Baker by tying him to President Donald Trump. Rice said she is “not planning to run this as a partisan race.” No high-profile conservative candidate has yet to step forward.

“I don’t think anybody wants to see another nasty election like what we saw between Baker and Kriseman,” she said.

Despite her prolific fundraising — which include small contributions and large ones, some from developers — Rice said her campaign will be “all about the people of St. Petersburg.” In 2017, she spearheaded a campaign finance ordinance limiting high-dollar contributions which she said has helped keep big money out city elections since then.

The primary election is Aug. 24. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will advance to a Nov. 2 general election.