ST. PETERSBURG — Voters go to the polls today in an election that could see the first defeat of an incumbent mayor since the city adopted the strong mayor form of government in 1993.
Polls suggest a tight race between Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman in the city's costliest ever mayoral contest. Combined, the two candidates have raised more than $500,000. That number does not include tens of thousands of dollars spent by both the Republican and Democratic state parties to try and sway the officially nonpartisan race.
More than 29,000 mail votes have already been cast in the election that also includes four City Council seats. That is roughly 1,000 fewer than were cast by the eve of the August primary, suggesting that turnout may not exceed the 31.5 percent turnout in the primary election that was boosted by the heated referendum on the Lens pier.
Foster and Kriseman spent Monday making their final pitches to voters as their campaigns focused on get-out-the-vote efforts. Campaign staff for City Council candidates also spent the day calling residents who have not yet voted, waving signs at busy intersections and placing signs at precincts.
A partisan race would seem to favor Kriseman, a former Democratic state lawmaker and City Council member. Of the city's 161,000 registered voters, roughly 47 percent are Democrats. Republicans make up 28 percent.
An analysis of the mail ballots already received shows that roughly 3,300 more Democrats had cast ballots than Republican as of Monday. Roughly 46 percent of the 66,880 mail ballots sent out to residents had been returned by 5 p.m. Monday.
Foster, who took a vacation day from City Hall, spent part of the day campaigning in Midtown, a community where voter turnout on Election Day could be crucial.
That included lunch at Manna From Heaven, a soul food diner on 34th Street South. He sat in the same seat where he and community activist Mamma T. Lassiter launched Lawfest. The program, which provides free legal consultations for Midtown residents, recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.
“We feel very confident,” Foster said. “We know the city is moving in the right direction. We have great momentum.”
Dining a few tables away, Eric Atwater, a South St. Petersburg store owner, said his vote will be going to Kriseman.
“We gave him a chance,” Atwater said of Foster. “He had an opportunity and didn't fulfill it.”
About a dozen volunteers manned phone banks in a Foster campaign office on First Avenue North, said Niel Allen, Foster's campaign manager. Today, the campaign focus will shift toward reminding people that the polls are open.
“It's about having the mayor out, volunteers holding signs at polling stations and getting out and being seen and reminding everyone it's Election Day and to get out and vote,” Allen said.
Kriseman spent part of Monday afternoon sitting at a folding table calling voters from a campaign office on Central Avenue. Voters who found themselves on the phone with the mayoral candidate wanted to know his plans for The Pier and whether he would support the arts.
He was joined inside the cramped office by as many as eight volunteers, who worked through voter lists dialing and asking if Kriseman could count on their support.
Among those making calls were Florida Democratic Party First Vice Chair Alan Clendenin, party press secretary Max Steele and William Rankin, the Democratic candidate for chief financial officer in 2014.
“As much as I would love your vote, please just go out and vote,” Kriseman told one resident who said she was leaning his way.
The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.