ST. PETERSBURG — Maybe before the NFL's national anthem uproar you assumed professional sports were apolitical endeavors. You'd be dead wrong in the case of St. Petersburg's mayoral race.
The historically non-political Tampa Bay Rays have jumped in with both fins behind incumbent Rick Kriseman, with the team and top executives pumping more than $80,000 into Kriseman's political committee. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rowdies are lined up solidly behind challenger Rick Baker, who works for and has received $50,000 in campaign donations from Rowdies owner Bill Edwards.
Should voters care?
Baker says no. Kriseman says yes.
"Bill gave me money, (Rays principal owner) Stu Sternberg gave him money," said Baker, president of the Edwards Group, shrugging off that the teams are top donors to both campaigns. "I'm going to work with both of them the same. I'm going to do whatever is right for the city."
Kriseman tells the Tampa Bay Times that St. Petersburg voters should be wary about electing someone with such close ties to a businessman who interacts so often with City Hall.
Edwards controls three of St. Petersburg's most prominent downtown landmarks. He owns the Sundial St. Pete shopping plaza downtown, has a contract to run the city-owned Mahaffey Theater, and owns the Rowdies soccer team, which wants to join Major League Soccer and turn the city's Al Lang Stadium into a privately funded, 18,000-seat arena along the waterfront.
"He's going to sit in on negotiations with the guy who employed him as president," Kriseman said, arguing that if elected mayor, Baker should recuse himself from any direct involvement with decisions related to Edwards.
"Aside from the fact that there's all kinds of inside knowledge, it's just very messy. There's all kinds of conflicts," said Kriseman, who nonetheless gives Edwards high marks for his management of the Mahaffey and Al Lang.
Baker, 61, said would not abstain on matters involving Edwards. During a debate Wednesday he dismissed a Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) question about whether as mayor Baker would "continue to work on his behalf."
"I fight for the city of St. Petersburg, and whether it's Bill Edwards or the president of the United States or the governor of the state of Florida, I fight for the city" said the former mayor, a Republican.
The election is officially non-partisan, but Rowdies owner Edwards is a major GOP donor, while the Rays' Sternberg mostly has contributed to Democrats.
Baker served as mayor for nine years before taking a $225,000-a-year economic development job with the University of South Florida's Research Foundation in 2010. Eighteen months later, Edwards hired him to run his non-mortgage-related business interests, including real estate deals and revamping Baywalk into Sundial.
"Smart move," then-state Rep. Kriseman said of Edwards' hire. "He loves his community."
In the financial disclosure statement Baker filed as part of his candidacy, he reported earning $186,991 from the Edwards Group in 2016, which appears to be on the lower end of his annual earnings over the past six years. He listed his net worth, as nearly $4.4 million, a 126 percent increase from his reported $1.9 million net worth as he left the mayor's office.
Baker declined to detail his compensation from Edwards but said it included a straight salary and bonuses. He said he could not recall whether he ever earned more than $1 million annually from Edwards, but benefitted considerably from growth in his investment portfolio.
"That's not the salary I made every year. I made more some years," Baker said of the 2016 figure.
Officials with the Rays declined to discuss their unprecedented involvement in this mayor's race except to recycle a previously released statement from team President Brian Auld about Krisman's "bold leadership" and commitment to diversity and growth.
The team has had a contentious relationship with Baker dating back to 2007. Then-Mayor Baker spent months working behind the scenes with the Rays on a plan to build a new waterfront stadium by Al Lang Field. Once news of that project leaked, Baker helped sow doubts by remaining conspicuously mute and signalling skepticism.
It's not an apples-to-apples comparison, but there is irony in Baker now being paid to champion a new soccer stadium in the same location. He used to urge the Tampa Bay Rays to call themselves the St. Petersburg Rays, and now he works for the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
"I told Bill (Edwards) it should be the St. Petersburg Rowdies," Baker said. "I just don't happen to control that decision. I think it should be the St. Pete Times, I think it should be the St. Pete Rays, but other people get to make that decision."
Baker said he holds "no ill will" toward the Rays for helping Kriseman. But he implies that the team is rewarding Kriseman for foolishly allowing them to look at potential new stadium sites outside the city before its contract expires in 2027. The team has until January 2019 to explore options.
"I would not have let them out of their contract to allow them look at Tampa," Baker said. "I will work to try to keep them here, trust me. I would work on a plan to keep them at the Trop site, using the equity from the Trop site to do that. But I think that effort has been made extremely difficult by the decision of this mayor to let them out of that requirement."
Kriseman says he remains confident the Rays will remain in St. Petersburg. He touts his deal under which the Rays would give up lucrative redevelopment revenue for the 85-acre Tropicana Field site should the team leave.
He also suggested that voters would be better served by a mayor who has a positive relationship with the team.
"It makes a difference who that person is (in the mayor's office) and what kind of relationship you've had and whether you trust them," Kriseman said. "The Rays appreciate the fact that I have been straight up with them in all my dealings with them. They feel my word is good."
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.