By Jim Bleyer
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, defying local polls and longtime political observers, yesterday stamped himself as the one to beat in his re-election bid against former Mayor Rick Baker.
Only 69 votes separated the two but the mood of the opposing camps at rallies Tuesday night spoke volumes. An exhilarated pro-Kriseman crowd rocked the State Theatre with high fives and fist pumps. Bakerites who were expecting a slam dunk win were crestfallen at the Staybridge Suites although they strongly reacted to their candidate’s anger-filled oratory that culminated the evening.
The two will square off in the Nov. 7 general election. Four other candidates could only amass 3.41 percent of the vote but in this case it was enough to ensure a runoff.
Kriseman’s frenzied rally in the last two weeks is attributable to a daunting ground game by seasoned political volunteers who combed through every city neighborhood and a fierce backlash against the Tampa Bay Times that went all-in for Baker.
Several Kriseman supporters–and other Democrats–canceled their Times subscriptions and earmarked their pro-rated refunds for the Kriseman campaign.
Former President Barack Obama endorsed Kriseman four days before the primary and it had some effect. The Times attempt to neutralize the story–which broke nationally–included minimizing coverage and inserting its own editorial position in the original article.
An important key for Baker going forward is the yet undecided outcome of the District 6 City Council race. Top vote getter Justin Bean is in the runoff but only four votes separate Gina Driscoll from third-place finisher Robert Blackmon, a conservative Republican. A recount is probable.
If Blackmon is eliminated, a percentage of his diehard supporters who also voted for Baker will skip the general election.
Another major hurdle for Baker is that he will be forced to articulate with specificity his vision of how government should work. His strategy of mumbling platitudes and blaming the sewage issue on Kriseman backfired badly. Maybe, like many of his supporters, he believes private enterprise would be best equipped to oversee areas now operated by government.
In fact, despite the fanciful Baker rhetoric and the Times coverage of his every utterance, sewage is no longer center stage. The average voter has doubts as to whether or not the crisis was precipitated by actions under Baker’s stewardship, not Kriseman’s.
Baker still refuses to repudiate the divisiveness and racism emanating from President Donald Trump. He wants to lead a city that treasures diversity and inclusion.
Tampa Bay Beat attended both rallies last night. The Baker event actually had higher attendance, though not by much. There was far more diversity cheering on Kriseman.
The respective demeanors of the two candidates were starkly different. Kriseman was composed but firm, and specific. Baker was intemperate and jabbed the air incessantly with his index finger.
Lastly, no ethnic slurs were overheard at the State Theatre; we cannot say the same for Rick Baker supporters.