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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Decide St. Petersburg mayor's race on records, not partisanship

DIRK SHADD | Times
The most expensive mayor's race in St. Petersburg's history has not been the most engaging or exciting. That does not diminish the importance of Tuesday's election or the argument that Rick Baker, left, is a better choice than the incumbent, Rick Kriseman.

Published Aug. 25, 2017

The most expensive mayor's race in St. Petersburg's history has not been the most engaging or exciting. Maybe that's because Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker are well known to voters. Or because their records are well-defined. Or because school has started, it's hot and the president hogs the headlines. That does not diminish the importance of Tuesday's election or the argument that Baker is the better choice.

Since their final debate last month, the candidates largely have gone their separate ways. Kriseman has tried to shift attention away from his mishandling of the sewage crisis over the last two years by injecting an inappropriate level of partisanship into a nonpartisan election. Television ads and mail aligning Kriseman with Democrats such as former President Barack Obama and Baker with Republicans such as President Donald Trump and Gov. Rick Scott smack of desperation. Local races are about local issues, and voters know Kriseman and Baker well enough to reach their own conclusions and not be swayed by such heavy-handed attempts to nationalize the mayor's race.

With the benefit of incumbency, Kriseman also has been busy in recent weeks cutting ribbons, moving a little-noticed Confederate marker and advancing his initiatives. But the cracks in the facade are showing. It remains unclear how much water and sewer rates will rise to make necessary improvements required by a consent agreement with the state. The City Council approved Kriseman's request to spend another $10 million on the Pier project by just one vote, and it still has to be approved by a skeptical Pinellas County Commission. Even intriguing ideas are undercut by poor execution. Some black community leaders are upset by Kriseman's recent choice of a restaurant to fill the empty Manhattan Casino in Midtown, turning a potential positive into more frustration with his well-intentioned efforts to revitalize those poor black neighborhoods.

During his two terms as mayor between 2001 and 2010, Baker helped bring to Midtown such improvements as a grocery store, credit union, health clinic, full-service post office and St. Petersburg College campus. Kriseman argues that he invests in people rather than buildings, and he led the creation of a community redevelopment area for Midtown. But as Baker counters, those buildings have contributed to bettering lives in those neighborhoods. The former mayor is best positioned to attract another grocery store and to bring new momentum to reducing poverty in Midtown.

Baker's hands-on management style and attention to detail make him the better choice to keep St. Petersburg on track. Doubts remain about the Kriseman administration's plans for improving the sewer system. Baker would promptly explore reopening a sewer plant whose closure contributed to nearly 200 million gallons of spilled sewage over two years. The former mayor also would look to reduce costs of a new police station and firing range that have mushroomed to $85 million, and of the Pier project that could approach $80 million.

Despite the lack of fireworks in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's election, the number of mail ballots that have been returned suggest a greater interest than usual in the mayor's race. That's good. But voters who have yet to cast ballots should go to the polls on Tuesday — and they should consider which candidate is best situated to keep St. Petersburg moving rather than focus on political party affiliation. This election is about restoring competence at City Hall, not Obama or Trump.

Times recommends

The Tampa Bay Times editorial board makes these recommendations in Tuesday's St. Petersburg election. If no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the mayor's race, the top two finishers advance to the November election. Only voters in District 6 will vote in the City Council race, and the top two finishers will advance to the Nov. 7 citywide election.

Mayor: Rick Baker

City Council, District 6: Justin Bean

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