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  1. Opinion

St. Petersburg elections are not about Donald Trump | Editorial

City Council elections are nonpartisan. Yet the Florida Democratic Party is wrapping the unpopular president around an incumbent who has no ties to Trump beyond party affiliation.

The Florida Democratic Party is having trouble attracting presidential candidates to its convention next week. It hasn’t raised as much money as the Republican Party of Florida, and its lead in voter registration is narrowing. Yet the state party has the time and money to meddle in a nonpartisan St. Petersburg City Council election. There is nothing partisan about running city government, and St. Petersburg voters should reject such interference.

The Democratic Party’s target this fall is City Council member Ed Montanari, who has a long record of civic involvement and is widely respected for his thoughtful, well-prepared approach. The state party sent a campaign mailer over the weekend headlined "Ed’s elephant in the room'' that labels him as "a right-wing Trumper.'' It called on Democrats to support Orlando Acosta, a first-time candidate. This is a brazen partisan appeal that has no place in nonpartisan city elections.

Unfortunately, Mayor Rick Kriseman demonstrated two years ago that injecting party politics into a city election can work. He relied on money and volunteers from the state Democratic Party to narrowly defeat former Mayor Rick Baker—and his campaign wrapped President Donald Trump around Baker’s neck. Baker, a Republican, did not endorse Trump or campaign for him. It didn’t matter.

Now the same divisive strategy is being used by Democrats in this City Council race for District 3, which includes Snell Isle and Shore Acres. Montanari is a Republican who also did not contribute to Trump’s campaign or campaign for him. So this is another cynical attempt at using nothing but party affiliation to tie an elected official to an unpopular president.

Montanari occasionally votes against the liberal majority on the council. For example, the Democratic Party mailer claims he sided with the National Rifle Association and "killed common sense gun reform.'' In fact, Montanari cast the only vote against St. Petersburg joining a lawsuit aimed at removing penalties for local officials who pass local gun safety ordinances despite a state law that bans such ordinances (a circuit judge has ruled in the cities’ favor, but the case is likely to wind up before the Florida Supreme Court).

In another example, the Democratic mailer claims Montanari "sided with Donald Trump'' by voting against renewable energy and efforts to deal with climate change. In fact, Montanari took the prudent approach by opposing the installation of solar panels at St. Petersburg’s expensive new police station because of the years it will take to recoup the cost. He also recently voted against a resolution supporting the federal Green New Deal, which the Democratically controlled House has not taken up and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has criticized. The reality is Montanari recognizes climate change and supports resiliency efforts.

Perhaps the Florida Democratic Party should have done more research. It backs a candidate who decided to run for City Council without ever attending a council meeting. And Montanari won more than 70 percent of the vote in the August primary and has been endorsed by six of his seven colleagues on the City Council -- all of whom are Democrats.

Injecting partisan attacks and an unpopular president into nonpartisan local elections may be the new normal in St. Petersburg. That doesn’t make it right. Voters should evaluate City Council candidates based on their records -- not their political party affiliation.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.