Unlike the August 29 primary, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman went into the general election as the favorite against former Mayor Rick Baker.
But margins were slim.
Much to the consternation of Baker (and his supporters), early returns of the evening — which included early vote/vote-by-mail — gave Kriseman an advantage of two percentage points, a margin he never relinquished during the next hour, ultimately taking 51.6 percent, versus Baker’s 48.3.
“We can now move forward. We can now finish what we started, and fully attain our vision of being a city of opportunity where the sun shines on all,” Kriseman said to kick off his victory speech at Nova 535 in St. Petersburg.
Among chants of “four more years,” Kriseman said the city was now ready to lead the nation on a host of issues: climate change, clean energy, inclusivity and campaign finance reform.
“We are already seen as a leader,” he said. “But we can do so much more.”
Kriseman was magnanimous, hoping that after the bitter campaign he could work with Baker in “putting St. Pete first.”
In contrast, Baker refused to acknowledge Kriseman at all in his brief concession speech to supporters at 400 Beach Seafood and Tap House.
“St. Petersburg is still an incredible place,” Baker said, encouraging supporters to continue making St. Pete a “seamless city.”
“For every child and every neighborhood, no matter where they live,” he added, “has an opportunity to live in safety, to be able to dream big dreams, to be able to get a great education and to be able to achieve the American dream.”
It was a well-heeled crowd of Baker supporters, with some muted criticism of the former mayor’s campaign, as well as some grumbling that there was too much time spent on the city’s south side and not enough in it’s western and northern parts.
And, of course, there was the Donald J. Trump factor.
From Day One, Baker accused Kriseman of partisanship, which Team Kriseman did (early and often), driving home the idea that the popular former two-term mayor was on the same team as Trump, despite Baker never saying anything about the president.
“You want races to be decided based on the qualifications of the candidates, but you can’t take politics out of politics,” admitted former Congressman David Jolly, introducing Baker’s two children to the audience after results started rolling in.
“Rick Baker did a wonderful job as mayor, but he’s been presented with the headwinds that most Republican candidates today are presented with, which is how do you handle what Donald Trump with this Republican Party?” Jolly asked rhetorically. “It’s not fair for Rick Baker, but it’s reality in today’s politics.”
“St. Petersburg is a very Democratic town and so he just tightened up the partisan politics to his advantage, which I can’t blame him for,” conceded former Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee Chair Paul Bedinghaus. “He played the party card, the Trump card.”
While Kriseman called for the city to come together, not all Baker fans were there emotionally, just yet.
“You don’t change leopard spots,” sniffed former Councilman Bill Dudley.
“This is just gonna give him a boost to continue to do what he’ doing, which is a real shame,” lamented former City Councilwoman Leslie Curran, a Kriseman supporter in 2013 who flipped to Baker during this election cycle.
“He bought his way out of jail time with a settlement with the consent order, but you can’t settle on everything,” she said, referring to the City Council’s approving a consent order with the Fish and Wildlife Commission and Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney Bernie McCabe to evade criminal penalties. The board agreeing to spend $326 million to improve the city’s sewage system, which discharged up to 200 million gallons of partially treated wastewater into local waterways from 2015 and 2016.
Some analysts considered Kriseman a dead man walking in early August, after an internal poll by the Florida Democratic Party showed the incumbent, a Democrat, down by double digits, 44 -33 percent.
That prompted some to start pushing the panic button, but Kriseman and close supporters weren’t swayed.
The next day, Pinellas County School Board Member (and fierce Kriseman ally) Rene Flowers told a group of supporters about to knock on doors that it was “time for the gloves to come off.”
“Quite frankly, we’ve attempted to run a campaign that is based on civility,” Flowers told the group at Kriseman’s southside headquarters. “We’ve attempted to run a campaign that is based on facts, and we will continue to do so, but we truly see that’s not what the opposition is doing, so it’s time for the gloves to come off.”
Less than three weeks later was the primary, where supposedly the only suspense would be if Baker could get the 50-percent-plus-one needed to end the election outright.
Instead, Kriseman stunned the Tampa Bay-area (and anyone else paying attention to the race) by capturing 70 more votes than Baker. And despite some extremely rough press and negative campaign ads by Baker, he never looked back.
Also paying attention were national Democrats.
DNC Chair Tom Perez exclaimed Tuesday night: “Today is a good day for St. Petersburg. I want to congratulate Mayor Kriseman on his re-election, and I want to recognize the incredible work of the Florida Democratic Party and countless grassroots organizers who helped lead Rick to victory … I’m confident that Mayor Kriseman will continue to move his city forward and give residents of St. Pete the leadership they deserve. The DNC was proud to invest in this re-election race, and we will continue fighting to elect mayors like Rick who will expand opportunity and build an economy that works for all.”
(Photo Credit: Kim DeFalco).