St. Petersburg’s “battle of the two Ricks” is not over yet.
Voters have made their choice in the primary, advancing former two-term Mayor Rick Baker and first-term Mayor Rick Kriseman to the November election.
Baker led for most of the evening Tuesday; but in the end, he slipped behind with 48.23 percent of the vote (27,253 ballots cast); Kriseman, the incumbent who trailed the race consistently in both fundraising and polling, took a slight lead with a much-better-than-anticipated 48.36 percent (27,322 votes).
With all 92 precincts reporting, just over 56,600 voters cast ballots, for a turnout of just over 33 percent.
Tuesday’s was a significant election, not only as the most expensive campaign in city history — a combined $2 million raised between campaigns and committees — but also as a contest between an incumbent and a popular former mayor, the only time since 1993, when St. Pete adopted its strong-mayor system.
But the battle of the two Ricks will perhaps be best remembered for its hyper-partisanship, something troubling many in a race for a traditionally nonpartisan job.
Receiving credit for Kriseman’s strong finish is the endorsement by former President Barack Obama, bolstered Kriseman’s support from African-American voters and Democratic voters still smarting from Donald Trump‘s surprise win in November.
On the campaign trail, state and national politics were everywhere, with substantial involvement by the Florida Democratic Party, which viewed the election as a bellwether, and President Donald Trump, who loomed large on both sides.
As for Baker, he railed against the mounting divisiveness, while helping to fuel criticism by not addressing whether he voted for Trump; his reticence was quickly branded as silence — and thereby supporting the president — by Democrats in ads and campaign mailers.
Baker rallied his supporters by telling them he would keeping fighting to the end, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
“I know a lot of y’all were hoping we finish this up tonight,” said Baker. “But I have to tell you, not me. I’m having too much fun. I think that we have two more months and we’re going to run those two more months hard all the way to the finish line and we’re going to communicate to everybody in our community our message that St. Pete is going to be best if it’s brought together as one city.”
Kriseman, an unabashed progressive, enjoyed the backing of many local Democrats, including Council members Darden Rice, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, Charlie Gerdes and Amy Foster. Republican Ed Montanari and Democrats Jim Kennedy and former 8-year Council member (now-state Rep.) Wengay Newton had backed Baker. Democrat Steve Kornell chose to stay out of the race entirely, citing the negativity from both sides.
The fight over St. Pete’s African-American community emerged as a major factor, as it has been for every mayoral race in recent memory. Many in St. Pete’s black neighborhoods saw Baker as attentive toward the community during his two terms, which further complicated Kriseman’s appeal to a typically Democratic voting bloc.
Blacks in St. Pete count for as much as 15 percent of the electorate; no one has ever won a mayoral race there without a majority of the black vote.
Also-rans in the primary included activists Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter and Anthony Cates III, Uhuru-backed candidate Jesse Nevel, and Paul “The Truth” Congemi — who briefly made national news when he suggested Uhurus “go back to Africa” at a candidate forum.
While each failed to garner more than a point — except for Nevel, who received just under 2 percent — the combined effect served to keep either Kriseman or Baker from a decisive primary victory (or loss).
Yet there was no bigger issue in St. Petersburg’s race for mayor than sewage, particularly in how the Kriseman administration handled the aftermath of tens of millions of gallons of partially treated wastewater dumped into local waterways during 2015-16.
As far back as 2001, St. Petersburg suffered from an aging and failing sewage system — while Baker was in office — but the problem reached its peak when the city dumped as much as 200 million gallons of waste after storms in 2015-16. Kriseman initially downplayed the issue (lied, some say), but later committed nearly $360 million for a fix.
In July, Kriseman’s campaign was dealt another blow with a 7-page state report blamed much of the wastewater problem on the mayor’s decision to close the Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility, which remained closed during the sewage spills.
A higher-than-normal early vote-by-mail turnout suggested increased interest in the race, while rain in parts of St. Pete on Election Day threatened to keep voters away from the polls.
Ironically, the Tampa Bay Times reported St. Pete experienced a relatively small (1,000 gallon) sewage spill Monday night, due to heavy rain on the eve of the primary. The spill, at the city’s Southwest plant, was mainly contained and posed no risk to the public, Public Works department spokesman Bill Logan told the Times.