By Jim Bleyer
An ordinarily innocuous St. Petersburg City Council race has roiled local politics and become a key bellwether as to who will be the next mayor of Florida’s fifth largest city.
The race to succeed term-limited Rick Kriseman as St. Petersburg mayor is two years away but political machinations suddenly opened the door for a Republican to capture the mayoralty in this Democratic stronghold in 2021.
It started July 1 with a monumental gaffe by a political pro who should know better.
City Council member Darden Rice, an historic progressive who has made no secret of her mayoral aspirations, endorsed Republican Robert Blackmon over Democrat John Hornbeck in this fall’s District 1 council race.
Rice’s action turned off many local Democrats. Though the city races are technically “non-partisan,” party politics always comes into play here.
Shortly after the endorsement, a Rice confidante told Tampa Bay Beat her action was “a no-brainer.” As it turns out, supporting Blackmon, who can be described as more than a nominal Republican, over Hornbeck has thrust Rice into a controversy of her own making.
Until Rice’s endorsement, the most controversial issue in the council race was the question of Blackmon’s residency. Hornbeck and others claimed he did not reside within District 1. Blackmon declared the matter closed with a home sale and his subsequent address. The point remains murky.
Rice was the early favorite to succeed Kriseman but no more. She alienated a significant portion of the Democratic base regardless of the District 1 result on November 5. The more astute move: no endorsement whatsoever. Inarguable.
Blackmon told Sunshine State News unequivocally there was no quid pro for the endorsement.
“There was absolutely no deals made. And, importantly, we do not know who will be running for mayor in 2021,” Blackmon asserted.
Then why would Rice take the risk?
“It’s a transparent move to move to the center,” said a Pinellas County officeholder who wished to remain anonymous. “She was advised by Barry Edwards to support Blackmon.”
The politico added that Edwards told Rice that in addition to reaching beyond her progressive credentials, the endorsement means she can count on Republican donations in her mayoral run. That’s more than a long shot the way the race is shaping up.
Edwards, with a loathsome personal history, is a longtime political operative and a board member of the Poynter Foundation, parent of the Tampa Bay Times. He also is reportedly helping Blackmon.
Despite the considerable Democratic majority, Republicans have had success winning St. Pete’s top spot with two of the last three mayors carrying the GOP banner. However, during Kriseman’s successful 2013 campaign and subsequent reelection over a formidable opponent, local Dems became more energized and organized. The feeling was future St. Pete mayor’s races would be theirs to lose. Sadly for the Democrats, that process has gotten a 28-month head start.
Here’s the St. Pete voter breakdown by party as of August 31: Democrats, 85,227; Republicans, 49,194; No Party Affiliation, 48,651. Theoretically, a Republican would need around 80 percent of the NPA vote if the electorate votes along party lines. The Dem edge in all of Pinellas County is a razor thin 3,821.
County Commissioner Ken Welch, another Democrat, has been mentioned often as a probable mayoral candidate. Others are waiting in the wings. One name floated in the past few weeks is State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a popular Republican who is term-limited through the end of 2022.
Brandes would be a powerful opponent in a predominantly Democratic city. He could be self-funding. He is not doctrinaire and reaches across the aisle. And he’s ambitious—if he should win the mayoralty, the Republicans would be forced to defend his Senate seat in a special election. Brandes could live with that.
Then there is former Mayor Rick Baker. He was favored to defeat Kriseman at the 2017 campaign’s outset but a notable intemperate outburst coupled with a tightly-woven, disciplined Kriseman effort doomed Baker.
It was thought that the loss slammed the door on Baker’s political career but whispers on social media describe a re-energized Baker ready to take on the world. A strongly rumored challenge to incumbent Congressman Charlie Crist is deemed suicidal. Running for mayor again would be far more viable.
It’s difficult to envision Brandes and Baker in the same race. If Brandes demurs, Baker gets a wide berth, even if a lesser known Republican joins the fray. He has the job experience, oratorical seasoning, and can easily get the band back together.
Whether it’s Brandes, Baker, or another prominent Republican, the GOP candidate now has plenty of ammo to work with.