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  1. Opinion

Nickens: Rick Kriseman mimics mistakes of Hillary Clinton

As he prepares to kick off his re-election campaign this week, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman reminds me of Hillary Clinton.

Both are progressive Democrats with years of public service and established records. Like Clinton, Kriseman cites considerable accomplishments and statistics that indicate things are generally better than when he took office. And like the former secretary of state, the mayor heads into the campaign as the overwhelming favorite to win on Election Day.

And yet.

Public support for Kriseman feels a mile wide and an inch deep even among his core constituencies. After a very successful first two years as mayor, there have been some major bumps. There are questions about his candor with voters. His rhetoric and his statistics don't align with what many residents see for themselves.

In similar circumstances, we know what happened to Clinton. This is not to predict Kriseman faces the same fate or argue that the situations are identical. Kriseman is running for re-election, not a promotion. He doesn't even have a serious announced opponent, and there is no Donald Trump on the horizon.

And yet.

Kriseman was riding high a year ago. In the first half of his term, he brought new energy to a city that had stalled under overmatched Mayor Bill Foster. The old pier was torn down and a new pier design was chosen. Plans moved forward for a new police station and curbside recycling started. And last January, Kriseman broke the yearslong deadlock over allowing the Tampa Bay Rays to look for a new home within the region.

But the rest of 2016 was a real stinker for the mayor. It's never good when 200 million gallons of sewage are released. It's worse when the mayor and his staff can't get their story straight about what happened and what to do about it. There is little enthusiasm for the new pier as residents have gotten accustomed to living without one, no restaurant operator has surfaced for the main pier building and Kriseman's pitch for another $14 million for enhancements received a lukewarm response.

There's more. An initial effort to give small grants to individual businesses to spur redevelopment backfired. A heavily promoted drive to improve the renamed Skyway Marina District is South St. Petersburg has produced fancy signs and little else. The cost of the new police station has ballooned to $81 million. The stadium site search for the Rays has gone underground, and residents are not clamoring to keep the team in St. Petersburg.

Every year can't be great. Maybe last year was just a transitional year. Sometimes building projects take more time. Or there is bad luck, like massive rainstorms that would have overwhelmed the sewers no matter who was mayor.

Regardless, Kriseman is not heading into re-election season with the wind in his sails. From black neighborhoods that feel neglected to the business community that feels frustrated, from liberal Democrats who should be his core supporters to conservative Republicans who were always skeptical, the mayor needs to resell himself and rack up some wins.

Talk to Kriseman one-on-one, and he remains as friendly and engaging as ever. He sounds well-intentioned and pragmatic. He's neither a big-idea guy nor a policy wonk consumed by details. But he has clear values, and there are no obvious subtexts. He tends to make sense in a straight-forward, guy-next-door way.

And yet.

There's a tendency for Kriseman to get too wrapped up in progressive social policy or partisan issues, however well-meaning. To borrow someone else's line, sometimes this administration goes too all West Wing.

There's also a tendency to add staff, hire consultants and spend more money when trouble pops up. Sewer crisis? Hire a $90,000-a-year sewer spokesman to spread good news. Gun violence? Hire an $80,000-a-year "community intervention director.'' Kriseman disputes this, but a city administration that seemed too thin when he took office now seems bloated.

The mayor's relationship with progressive City Council members who should be allies has been uneven. His chief of staff, Kevin King, remains a disruptive force who hurts his boss inside and outside City Hall. There are too many unforced errors, like illogically claiming sewage discharges did absolutely no harm or picking a public fight last week over the route of the St. Pete Pride Parade.

More broadly, Kriseman has undermined his credibility with voters. He was forced to acknowledge what he called essentially reclaimed water was sewage. He has dug in his heels on a new pier that has lost its allure. He paints a rosy picture in Midtown even as a Walgreens pharmacy, a Walmart grocery and a restaurant in a city owned building have closed.

Politicians get in trouble when they lose focus — and when their rhetoric and statistics don't match what many voters are experiencing. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

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