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St. Pete voters are trickling to the polls; here’s what they’re saying

Partisanship might not be as much of an issues as some had thought.

As of 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, more than 1,600 voters had cast an Election Day ballot in St. Petersburg, bring total voter turnout so far to just over 14 percent.

Election day turnout is highest during the early morning and evening rush as voters are heading to and from work.

Turnout four years ago in the most recent comparable city election was 17 percent.

In west St. Pete at one of District 1’s busiest polling places, Pasadena Community Church, there was a steady trickle of voters. During the fist two and a half hours polls were open, 82 voted Fram that location, an average of less than one per minute.

Of those, 49 were Democrats, 28 were Republicans and five had no party affiliation.

Partisanship emerged as a key issue in this year’s City Council races, but it might not be on the average voter’s mind.

One voter who declined to give her name because she works for an organization that endorses candidates wore a “Nasty Woman” t-shirt, a throw-back to the 2016 election when now President Donald Trump used that phrase to describe Hilary Clinton. Her supporters rallied against the attack proudly donning t-shirts proclaiming themselves to be nasty women. Still, she said partisanship isn’t an issue in local elections.

“Local politics are really hard. We don’t do it by partisanship. We do it based on what issues matter to the community,” the voter said. “Things like making sure that folks can make a living wage and that there’s proper housing in St. Petersburg. There’s a real focus on the issues that matter to the communities that are voting.”

That voter said she came to the polls to support District 5 candidate Deborah Figgs-Sanders and District 7 incumbent Lisa Wheeler-Bowman.

Figgs-Sanders’ race against Trenia Cox is one of three on the ballot this year that has seen partisanship at play. Neither candidate used partisan issues as talking points, but some of Figgs-Sanders’ supporters blasted Cox for conservative support through both financial contributions to the campaign and through endorsements including from former Republican Mayor Rick Baker.

Most notably, St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman took to social media last month to lament conservative support. Asked about it after he voted at Pasadena Community Church just before 8 a.m. Kriseman avoided doubling down on those claims.

“Are we looking for the city to move forward or go backward? I think Deborah is all about moving the city forward and that’s why I’m supporting her,” Kriseman said.

Both candidates in the District 5 race are Democrats.

St. Pete elections are non-partisan, which means candidates’ party affiliations are not listed on the ballot. A local Democratic Party representative was on hand at Pasadena Community Church handing out door hangers listing which candidates were registered Democrats.

Across town and to the south, teams of Figgs-Sanders and Cox supporters crowded all four corners of the intersection of 54th Ave. South and 31st St. Cox and her supporters sported bright yellow shirts while Figgs-Sanders’ supporters wore white shirts with her token purple and green type.

One of Figgs-Sanders’ supporters, Pat McGhee, praised both candidates.

“They’re both good candidates, but I would say my candidate — just her experience in working with government and her experience with being hands on … keeping the community aware of what those issues are and how important it is for us to be knowledgable about what’s going on in our community, sets her apart,” McGhee said.

She rejected the argument that partisan support should play into voters’ decisions.

“My theory is people. It’s all up to people to stand up for what they think is right not necessarily looking at the people who are supporting them,” McGhee said.

Meanwhile, Cox was across the street jubilantly greeting passing motorists.

“I’m very excited. I’ve very optimistic. I’m feeling good about it,” Cox said before cheerfully shouting “good morning” to a passing driver. “I’m loving it. I think we’re there. It’s going to be tight but we’re there. I’m just charged.”

The busy intersection where Cox and Figgs-Sanders supporters were waving signs is just feet from Pinellas Community Church, one of the busier polling places in the city. There, 56 voters cast a ballot between 7 and 9:30 a.m.

Voter turnout in local elections is historically low. St. Pete holds its municipal elections in off election years meaning high profile state or federal races aren’t on the ballot. Asked about whether he was concerned about low voter turnout, Kriseman said it’s hard to predict dips in turnout.

“It’s always hard to know when folks are going to turn out and when they’re not,” Kriseman said. “We have this right, we ought to exercise it and I think if you don’t vote you’re giving up your rights and allowing other people to make decisions for you. My mom always used to say that if you don’t vote you give up your right to complain.”

Four City Council races are on the ballot this year. In addition to Figgs-Sanders and Cox voters are also choosing between Robert Blackmon and John Hornbeck in District 1, incumbent Ed Montanari and his challenger, Orlando Acosta, in District 3 and Wheeler-Bowman and her challenger, Eritha “Akile” Cainion in District 7.

There are also two charter amendments and a referendum on the ballot.

One voter who also asked not to be identified stayed behind at Pasadena Community Church after he voted to distribute literature explaining the referendum. It’s a question before voters asking whether the city should enter into a long-term lease with the St. Petersburg Yacht Club’s St. Petersburg Sailing Center.

As he offered handouts to voters, most said they were unfamiliar with the referendum. One woman who accepted his handout entering the polling place came back out afterward and said decided to vote “yes.”

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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