One of the most contentious, and expensive, mayoral races in St. Petersburg history — christened the “battle of the Ricks” — is finally over.
And, as expected, it was a close race; first-term incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman narrowly defeated former two-term Mayor Rick Baker 51.55 to 48.45 percent.
St. Pete voters cast ballots Tuesday to determine who would be St. Pete’s mayor for the next four years — and the direction of the city, some said — as well as deciding three City Council races.
Voters overwhelmingly approved an extension of the Penny for Pinellas one-cent infrastructure sales tax (83 to 17 percent), and to allow the historic Vinoy Renaissance hotel to upgrade its parking garage.
Between the two, the Ricks raised a joint $2.6 million in the race — by campaigns and associated political committees — making it the most expensive mayoral race ever.
Leading into Election Day, a final St. Pete Polls survey had Kriseman slightly ahead of Baker 48 to 46 percent, well-within a two-point margin of error.
While the race was officially nonpartisan under the St. Pete City charter, party politics played a key role early on as Kriseman, a Democrat, tried to tie Republican Baker to President Donald Trump, who was largely unpopular in St. Petersburg. It was a strategy that seemed to work for the Aug. 29 primary, where Kriseman narrowly won by about 70 votes, despite lagging in polling throughout the campaign.
Since then, Kriseman continued leading in the polls — albeit slightly — throughout the race.
Not helping with the Trump narrative was Baker’s reticence in acknowledging who he supported in 2016.
Among the main policy talking points of the campaign was Kriseman’s response to the city’s sewer problems, a possible relocation of the Tampa Bay Rays and the rising costs of the refurbished St. Petersburg Pier and a new St. Pete Police station.
Kriseman’s longtime chief of staff, Kevin King, also became a campaign issue after Baker’s campaign produced an attack ad (without naming King) highlighting his arrest in 2001 as a 22-year-old substitute teacher in the Pinellas County School District for propositioning a student for sex.
Kriseman’s campaign called for a continuation of the city’s forward movement, saying a vote for Baker — who served as mayor from 2001 to 2010 — would be a step backward. He also blasted Baker for ignoring the city’s emerging status as a leading LGBTQ community during his time in City Hall.
The race also attracted several state and national Democrats to support Kriseman, particularly a rare endorsement from former president Barack Obama. In addition, leading Democratic figures such as Julian Castro, Martin O’Malley and Cory Booker came to St. Pete to campaign for the incumbent.
With Trump’s role in the race, Democrats and progressives are pending their hopes on this race as one of the bellwethers for next year’s midterm elections.
As for Baker, he received more homegrown Republican support, with endorsements from the local GOP establishment and all five living former St. Pete mayors.