ST. PETERSBURG — There was a time when they were friendly.
Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman served on the St. Petersburg City Council at the same time and even attended Game 7 of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup triumph together.
For the past nine months, though, the mayoral candidates have traded barbs in what has arguably been the most politically charged nonpartisan race in the city’s history, with the state Republican and Democratic parties pouring tens of thousands of dollars and resources into the race.
Yet, despite their political differences, Republican Foster and Democrat Kriseman have strikingly similar positions on many of the city’s major issues. Both say they will demolish the inverted pyramid and build a new pier. They both say they will protect the taxpayer’s investment in Tropicana Field and continue the city’s controversial red-light camera program.
The distinction between the two is perhaps best seen in their starkly different leadership styles and in issues that resonate at the neighborhood level, such as the redevelopment of Midtown and rejuvenation of the city’s once-proud neighborhood associations.
Backers of Kriseman say he will be a more responsive leader who will make regeneration of poverty-stricken areas a priority.
“We need someone who will look out for the whole city, not just the business community, not just the north side,” said the Rev. Louis Murphy, senior pastor at the Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in South St. Petersburg, which has more than 3,000 members.
“Foster has failed to win over the whole city; there is a lot of divisiveness.”
Foster supporters point to Kriseman’s lack of accomplishments in 12 years as a City Council member and a Democratic state lawmaker and say Foster’s frugal leadership of the city over the past four years was key to its recovery from the recent recession.
“He knew, going in the door, there was nothing but pain to spread — there were no goodies,” said Jay Lasita, who served on the City Council alongside Foster and Kriseman. “If he’s re-elected, he’ll try to prudently restore some of the things that had to be taken away.”
Focusing on neighborhoods
Kriseman’s campaign has made political capital out of areas where Foster made cuts, with Kriseman pledging to give more support to neighborhood associations and bolster code enforcement.
Despite St. Petersburg’s reputation as a city of neighborhoods, the number of active neighborhood associations has fallen from 120 to about 60 over the past five years, according to Kurt Donley, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations. The associations are seen as key to keeping neighborhoods tidy and safe and in engaging residents to take pride in their community.
Part of the decline stems from Foster’s decision to eliminate funding for city’s Neighborhood Partnership Grants in 2013. In the three preceding years, the city allocated $100,000 per year for small neighborhood-improvement projects such as traffic-calming and signs.
The cuts were exacerbated by a decline in the responsiveness from the mayor and city staff, Donley said.
“When CONA would meet with the mayor and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got these problems,’ the city would bend over backwards to help,” Donley said. “Now, that’s no longer the case.”
At a recent budget hearing, Kriseman added his voice to a call from the People’s Budget Review for the city to put an extra $250,000 into improving neighborhoods. He has also pledged to allocate more money for the city’s overworked code enforcement department.
On his campaign website, Foster says that neighborhoods will continue to be a priority; but his proposed 2014 budget allocated just $30,000 for neighborhood grants. A majority of City Council members voted to put aside $180,000 from reserve funds to be divided between neighborhood improvements and economic development.
“We’re at a point where we need to invest in our city,” said Donley. “It would appear Mayor Foster does those things only when he’s pushed, and Mr. Kriseman wants to do those things.”
Midtown a dividing line
A high poverty rate and the blight of foreclosed homes have made redevelopment of Midtown a key campaign issue. The area south and west of downtown has a high percentage of black voters who often vote as a bloc, making it a highly coveted demographic.
Throughout the campaign, Foster has highlighted ongoing Midtown projects that he says will spur redevelopment, including Sylvia’s Restaurant at the Historic Manhattan Casino, the construction of a 45,000-square-foot campus for St. Petersburg College and the Jobs Corp. center and helping lure a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market to replace the Sweetbay that closed on 22nd Street South.
Long-term, Foster touts the city’s partnership with Pinellas County on designating a 7.5-mile part of Midtown as a community redevelopment area. The designation allows the city to create two Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, areas, where new property taxes can be earmarked to boost job training, create jobs, increase home-ownership and build new homes.
But Foster has faced repeated criticism from black leaders for not doing enough to help black residents, among whom there is a persistent perception the city has focused too much on downtown.
“I’m not pleased with how the African-American community has stalled as far as economic development,” said Murphy, the pastor. “The things he’s touting, those are initiatives started by [former Mayor] Rick Baker. I certainly think we can do better.”
Kriseman, who won most of the Midtown precincts in the August primary, has touted more community policing and a more restrictive police pursuit policy as ways to help mend hostility between the city’s police force and the black community. He has pledged to investigate introducing civil citations for juveniles guilty of minor drug offences as an alternative to criminal charges, so they are not saddled with criminal records the rest of their lives.
When asked how he will bring jobs and businesses to Midtown, though, Kriseman cites projects already in progress, including the Greenlight Pinellas proposal to radically expand transit in Pinellas, the city’s new local hiring ordinance and the CRA plan.
One idea that separated him from Foster was to hire a city employee to focus solely on economic development in Midtown, a position that has been unfilled since Foster fired Goliath Davis III in 2011.
Last week, Foster announced plans for a new committee of residents and business owners to produce a CRA plan and to hire someone to fulfil the role that Davis did. Coming just two weeks before the election, critics panned the move as a blatant attempt to court black voters.
“Announcing this position two weeks before an election is offensive and nothing more than an act of desperation from a mayor trying anything to hold on to power,” Kriseman said in a statement.
Contrasting leadership styles
As a City Council member, Foster was never far from the TV cameras and reporters at City Hall.
“There were a few members who were put off by that,” said Lasita, the former council member. “The irony is, now, he’s being portrayed as somebody who doesn’t’ toot his own whistle.”
That low-key leadership style has created doubts about his leadership. Foster said he doesn’t need to hold a press conference for every accomplishment. He points to opinion polls that show that almost three-quarters of city residents think the city is headed in the right direction.
Those same polls show he is not getting credit for that progress, with Foster either trailing or deadlocked with Kriseman.
His standing among City Council is worse, with six of eight council members endorsing his opponent and fellow Republican Baker having yet to endorse him — a sharp contrast from when Baker stumped for Foster to be his successor four years ago. “Only the mayor has the megaphone for the city; it’s pretty clear, [Foster’s] style is low-key and quiet, and I think we need a more forceful cheerleader for the city.” said Council Chairman Karl Nurse.
When Foster was elected mayor, former Councilwoman Virginia Littrell worked on his campaign. As a friend of both Foster and Kriseman, she decided to stay on the sidelines this time.
During his first term, Foster faced the controversy over the pier, the Tampa Bay Rays dispute, the shooting of three police officers and plummeting property taxes — graver challenges than any other mayor has faced, Littrell said.
“There were a lot of difficult times he brought us through,” she said.
She gives Kriseman credit for pushing for safer crossings for pedestrians but said some of his other proposals while on City Council were ill-conceived, including putting limits on bird-feeding. That measure was the first ordinance vetoed by Baker.
Lasita remembers Kriseman as good at helping constituents but said he lacked vision and often voted against taking the city in new directions; as a councilman, for example, Kriseman voted against universal curbside recycling, something he now says he favors.
“Once in a while you’ve got to let it fly a little, and Rick would never do that,” Lasita said. “He’s usually very scripted and almost too cautious. I found that a little frustrating.”