With all eyes on the 2020 presidential race ahead of the second Democratic debate in Miami Thursday night, there’s a local election all of Tampa Bay should be watching.
Four City Council races are on the ballot this year that could have substantial implications on the future of Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay. Two incumbents face challengers while the other two are crowded races for open seats.
Who fills those seats (or keeps them) will set the tone for conversations about how to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg or the Tampa Bay region.
The team is forging forward with plans to split its home games between Tropicana Field near downtown St. Pete and in Montreal.
There’s not a lot City Council can immediately do. The team is contractually obligated to play all of its games at the Trop through 2027 and it’s banned from negotiating with other cities.
The only way for that to change is through a memorandum of understanding the Mayor would have to first broker before sending to City Council for an up or down vote.
Mayor Rick Kriseman has already made it clear he will not negotiate any deal with the Rays that doesn’t involve them playing the entire season in St. Pete. He’s still willing to workout a stadium deal with the team, but he’s not interested in sharing.
The reason this year’s council races will be so important to the team’s future is those new members will soon work with a new administration as Kriseman prepares to leave office in 2021.
This opens the door for a one-issue pair of elections both this year and in two years as candidates will be tested by voters over and over on how they think the issue should be handled.
They’ll be grilled on whether or not it’s appropriate to use taxpayer funds to build a stadium for a team who just dissed the region blatantly saying it can’t support a team full-time. Some will press candidates on whether or not the Rays should again be able to negotiate with Hillsborough and Tampa for a stadium over there even though their first shot fizzled.
Attention will also be paid to development rights at Tropicana Field. As long as the Rays play there, they own half the development rights to anything that goes up on the massive site.
On one hand, those development rights are a key financial tool to build a new stadium, but if there’s not to be a stadium, the Rays continued presence delays progress on what is the city’s most ripe property for redevelopment.
But the biggest issue is how the Rays will turn a local municipal election into a regional must-watch. How St. Pete’s political makeup changes will likely determine the fate of baseball in the city and the region.
That sets the stage for a potentially record setting, expensive election possibly in City Council races and likely in the 2021 Mayor’s race as funds flood in from wealthy interests either hoping to keep the Rays in the region or to capitalize on development opportunities at Tropicana Field.
It won’t be the first time the Rays are at the center of debate in a St. Pete election. Ask Steve Kornell. He’s term limited out of office this year, but the Rays were a major problem for him in his reelection campaign four years ago.
Kornell was against the proposed deal Kriseman had brokered with the Tampa Bay Rays. He wanted more concessions from the team in order for them to look at other markets in the region for a stadium.
The result? The Tampa Bay Times editorial board gave their endorsement to Kornell’s challenger despite that candidate lacking credibility and failing to assemble a competitive campaign. The editorial board’s only reason for its endorsement was the Rays issue.
Kornell survived the beating, but another candidate might not be so lucky.
All of the candidates have been quiet so far with the Aug. 27 ballot just finalized last week. But make no mistake, as debates begin, the Rays will be the top issue.