On August 29, St. Petersburg could choose its next mayor. According to the Pinellas County supervisor of elections, 169,770 residents of the city will be eligible to vote in the upcoming primary election, meaning that 169,770 residents of the Sunshine City will have one of three choices that day.
First, to elect the next mayor. Second, to send two candidates to a run-off election in November, should no one receive 50 percent plus one of the vote. Or third, to stay home and let every other eligible voter decide on their behalf.
And while ballots will list seven candidates, including one disqualification for Ernisa Barnwell and one racist rant from Paul Congemi, polling suggests that it comes down to two viable options: the current mayor or a former one.
Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker may share a first name, and each may have held the office of mayor (Kriseman currently, Baker for two terms from 2001-2010), but similarities between the two mostly end there.
Kriseman is an outspoken Democrat and longtime supporter of the LGBTQ community—something he earnestly discussed with Watermark ahead of the election, with his team going so far as to insist the discussion be directly with the current mayor.
Baker is a Republican who, as his party’s platform dictates, has found himself at odds with the LGBTQ community for much of his political career—something Watermark would have earnestly discussed with the former mayor had he or his team responded to multiple requests for comment.
Although the race is officially non-partisan, in a city of 78,253 Democrats, 47,011 Republicans and 44,506 without a party affiliation who are eligible to vote; partisan politics inevitably come into play.
As mayor, Kriseman has celebrated Barack Obama and denounced Donald Trump. In June, he joined the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda’s effort to “adopt, honor and uphold the commitments to the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement.” He’s also been endorsed by Florida’s U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and U.S. Representative Charlie Crist.
During last year’s election cycle, Baker supported Crist’s opponent, former U.S. Representative David Jolly, serving as his campaign chairman for his failed bid. Jeb Bush wrote the foreword to Baker’s book, The Seamless City: A Conservative Mayor’s Approach to Urban Revitalization. And of course, Baker infamously supported Sarah Palin in 2008.
“I’m asking the citizens of St. Petersburg to continue the progress of the past three years,” Kriseman said in January when he announced his bid for re-election. “Working together, we’ve taken on the serious issues and made a positive impact in all corners of our city.”
Baker’s announcement came in May, and he referred to his previous years as mayor as a blessing before outlining his attack on Kriseman, turning to partisanship himself. “You’re going to hear a lot about Republicans and Democrats over the next few months,” he said. “That’s the only thing they have.”
It’s something Baker proved to have as well, however. Within three weeks the former mayor had received $553,174 in political donations, largely from Republican political action committees (PACs.) Baker also addressed his contentious relationship with the LGBTQ community.
“I want you to know that I believe that the LGBT community is a vital and important part of our community,” Baker said. “I believe that when we work together, we have to work together with everyone.”
Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith wasn’t impressed, announcing her support for Kriseman via social media. “Here’s what he didn’t say: ‘I was wrong. I stood in the way of basic rights and I shouldn’t have.’ He stated facts and tried to make them sound like regret,” she said. “He had a stage to make even small amends and he failed to. I don’t trust Rick Baker because he thought we’d be too dumb to notice.”
Smith has been a longtime critic of Baker’s, telling Watermark in 2009 that progress in the LGBTQ community had been made in spite of the then-mayor, not because of him. Smith was referring to the ever-growing St. Pete Pride, now the largest Pride event in Florida.
“Personally, I don’t support the general agenda of the Pride event,” Baker said in 2005.
Kriseman, who became the first mayor to march in the city’s Pride parade in 2014 and continued the new tradition through this year, has said that marching was never a question for him. “I’m the mayor of the city,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “The LGBT community is a big part of this community.”
“I choose to participate in other ways,” Baker’s campaign told the same newspaper of marching in this year’s parade. The former mayor made an appearance at the festival at the end of the weekend-long event, and also attended the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Pride Night earlier in June. Baker is familiar with the Rowdies: the team’s owner Bill Edwards named him president of the Edwards Group, and has heavily contributed to his campaign.
“I want the LGBTQ community to know I stand with and for them, and that while I may not have the support of every member of that community, I support them,” Baker told Tampa Bay’s ABC affiliate in May. “I want residents to know St. Petersburg is better and stronger today because of our LGBTQ community, and as mayor I will seek and protect equality for all.”
It’s a stark difference from Baker’s time as mayor, particularly to Theresa Jones. Jones recently retired from her work for the city after nearly 30 years. In 2008, she served under Baker as the director of community affairs.
During that time, Baker repealed the Human Rights Ordinance (HRO) responsible for anti-discrimination efforts for the city. “A lot of people missed that in the debates and in coverage,” she noted. The program prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, something not even federal law did at the time.
The responsibility was transitioned to the Pinellas County government, which would later prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but didn’t at the time.
“Our ordinance was more far-reaching than even federal law,” Jones says proudly, recalling her disappointment in its repeal over budgetary concerns. Discrimination cases were still pending investigation at the time.It’s a part of why she’s supporting Kriseman, so that “we can keep moving forward.”
Forward is where Kriseman wants to go. In speaking with Watermark, he noted the “great progress” that’s been made for the community while he’s been in office, proudly noting that the city’s “really shining a light on the importance of the LGBT community.”
He also discussed his love for marching during Pride, which he did even before his election, and called his officiating of same-sex marriages one of his “greatest honors as mayor.”
“We need to continue to work to make sure that this is a welcoming, tolerant community where everyone feels respected and safe,” he says, turning to the plans he hopes to enact if re-elected.
“There’s been an effort to bring World Pride to the city, and that’s certainly something we’d support. We’d love to make that happen,” Kriseman says. He then cited the city’s Municipal Equality Index score of 100 percent, which St. Petersburg has received for two years from the Human Rights Campaign. Kriseman is hopeful for a third perfect score.
The score represents how inclusive a city’s laws, policies and services are for the LGBTQ people who live and work there. Last year, Tampa received a score of 86 percent and Orlando also received a 100 percent. Under Kriseman, St. Petersburg has risen from a 66 percent.
“I’d like to see the city reach out to LGBT travelers and businesses more than we’ve done in the past,” Kriseman says. “Those statistics should be spreading all around the country to let people and business leaders know this is a community they can come to and feel comfortable in.”
Pinellas Democratic Party Chair Susan McGrath called Kriseman a champion for LGBTQ equality, but noted that his leadership goes “well beyond that.”
“While he raised the rainbow flag over City Hall, he also raised the Carter G. Woodson African American flag…He’s moving the city toward 100 percent clean, renewable energy, providing opportunities by ‘banning the box’ and raising wages, [all] while earning the distinction of St Petersburg being the best fiscally run city in Florida,” McGrath says. “St. Petersburg is moving forward on too many areas for us to go back.”
Jones agreed. She says that in addition to the repeal of the HRO, a program that funded summer jobs for low-income youth was cut by $270,000 under Baker. “I grew up as one of those kids,” she says. “I’ve worked for minorities, for women…My life’s work has been to advocate for the disadvantaged and level the playing field.”
She eventually had the funding restored by pursuing federal grants, and the funds were later replenished on the municipal level by Baker’s successor. Kriseman has maintained the funding.
“Kriseman has been a progressive mayor dealing with actual issues that impact the community,” Jones says. “The second chance program to help juveniles, the LGBT community… he’s been the mayor of inclusion, of progress.”
Jones paused. “Baker put up buildings, but what did he do to build up the people?”
Looking Ahead… Candidates, start your engines—and may the Best. Person. Win.
Should neither Kriseman nor Baker garner 50 percent plus one of the vote on August 29, they’ll head to the General Municipal Election’s ballot on November 7—but they won’t be alone.
Currently, St. Petersburg’s District 6 will join the candidates for mayor on the primary ballot, with eight contenders – but room for only two to move forward. St. Petersburg residents will vote on two candidates from District 6: Justin Bean, Robert Blackmon, Eritha Cainion, Gina Driscoll, Corey Givens, James Jackson, James Scott or Maria Scruggs, whoever moves beyond the August 29 primary if necessary.
Residents will also vote on city council members for District 2 and District 4, choosing either Brandi Gabbard or Barclay Harless for 2, and Darden Rice or Jerick Johnston for 4. (Ballots will list District 8, but Amy Foster is running unopposed.)
Information on the candidates, the issues, polling locations and your voter registration status can be found at VotePinellas.com. You can also contact the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections by phone at 727-464-VOTE or by email at Election@VotePinellas.com.
According to the Orange County supervisor of elections, 793,073 Orlando residents will be eligible to vote in the city’s own upcoming election, also scheduled for November 7. By their records, that’s 336,054 Democrats, 215,673 Republicans, 238,083 men and women without a party affiliation and 3,263 others listed as, well, “other.”
The City Beautiful seeks to name three new city council members on that date,with a runoff election scheduled for December 5 for any races where no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote. District 1, District 3 and District 5 are all up.
Residents will choose between Jim Gray or Charles Keen III for District 1, and between Robert F. Stuart and Asima Azam for District 3. Residents will find a choice of eight potential city council members for District 5: Regina Hill, Jibreel Ali, Ericka Dunlap, Sarah Abuobaida Elbadri, Betty Gelzer, Cynthia Harris, Ondria James and Darryl Sheppard are all vying for the spot.
Information on the candidates, the issues, polling locations and your voter registration status can be found at CityOfOrlando.net/cityclerk/election-information and OCFElections.com. You can also contact the Orange County Supervisor of Elections at 407-836-2070.