The five potential candidates who could beat Bill Foster in next year’s Mayoral election

By on April 27, 2012

Earlier this week, Rep. Rick Kriseman said he was not running for re-election so he could spend more time with his family. But don’t be confused, when Kriseman says “family”, he means any potential voter in the 2013 municipal elections.

In other words, the 2013 Mayoral Race will begin in earnest soon.

The first question is: Will Bill Foster even run for re-election?

Foster strikes me as a lethargic politician. I am not entirely convinced that he wants to spend another four years cutting budgets and laying off staff.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Bill Foster announced he was returning to his precious law practice.

But let’s assume for a moment Foster is running for re-election. And let’s assume the state of the city remains relatively constant over the next eighteen months: homelessness continues to decrease, the Rays stay in St. Pete but continue to ask for a new stadium, etc.

Whether Foster deserves re-election will be the subject of another, probably many more, post(s) in the future.

The question today is: Who out there can beat him in 2013 – and who can’t? Because, for a multitude of reasons, there aren’t many folks who seem especially satisfied with Bill Foster.

  • The African-American community has not been this dissatisfied since 1996, especially since Go Davis was fired.
  • Democrats never liked Foster to begin with.
  • The gay community views Foster, literally, as a dinosaur.
  • Many neighborhood leaders see him as ineffectual.

As for Foster’s natural allies in the business community, their common complaint is that Foster is no Rick Baker. In fact, much of the conversation about whether Foster deserves re-election is not coming from Foster’s left, but from leaders in the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Partnership and other business and development interests.

Does all of this dissatisfaction rise to the level where Foster could be defeated in 2013? Well, let’s start with five candidates who can’t beat/won’t run against Foster.

Even if she is foolish enough to seek a rematch against Foster, Kathleen Ford will never be able to build a majority wide enough to win. Yes, Kathleen has been proven by events to be more right than wrong, but that’s never been the issue. She is, and always will be, too polarizing a figure to serve as Mayor. Also, don’t overlook the fact that she would have a very difficult time raising the kind of money needed to win.

Another woman who has a better chance against Foster and is reportedly more likely to run against him in 2013 is Leslie Curran. This isn’t to speculate, but I don’t know what the status of her health is since her accident.  Does she have the energy to mount a year-long campaign? And what constituency does she bring to the table that isn’t already in Foster’s camp?  Because of that limitation, Curran would have trouble making it out of a multi-way primary in order to actually make it to a heads-up match against Foster.  If she did, sure, she has a shot, but she would likely lose narrowly in the primary.

Forget about Karl Nurse running in 2013.  Remember, he’s actually in his first term, so he can run for a second term in 2013. Nurse is not going to risk giving up his precious platform, from which he can talk about big ideas just to launch a quixotic run against Foster.

This is still St. Petersburg, so none of the cats from Midtown – Go Davis, Deveron Gibbons or Darryl Rouson – can actually beat Foster.  One of them could finish second in a multi-way primary, thereby making history, but St. Petersburg isn’t progressive enough to elect a non-white Mayor.

Unless, his name is Ken Welch, but he long ago broke my heart and said he is not running.

So, if none of the preceding can beat Foster, who can? Are there really five possible candidates who can beat incumbent Bill Foster?

Actually, there are six, if you count Charlie Crist, who would never actually run for Mayor of St. Pete, but could embarrass Foster in a head-to-head race.

And until qualifying closes, I am not counting out Welch, no matter what he says. Circumstances could change so dramatically – the Rays attempt to leave, race relations reach the boiling point – that Morpheus decides he has to run in order to save the city.  Let’s hope nothing like that happens. But Welch – with every black vote, every Democrat, gay and progressive vote AND strong, visible support from the disaffected business community – could beat Foster.

Another person who could beat Foster building that same coalition is the smarter, wiser (and more humble) Scott Wagman.  I’ve spoken more with Wagman since he lost in 2009 than I could have imagined after I continuously pilloried him during that year’s campaign. I’ve found Scott to be a much more mature, more visionary personality than what I saw then. It’s as if the rough edges have been sanded away.  So if he decided to make the same financial commitment as he did before, but this time spent it much more efficiently, he could be a very dangerous opponent for Foster.  In a heads-up campaign, he could draw strength from all of those to the left of Foster, while making a convincing appeal to the business and regional interests, such as the Chamber or the newspaper, that he is leader to move the city forward.

See, that’s the arithmetic one needs to understand to beat Foster: hold and win everyone to the left of Foster – (many of these demos overlap) blacks, Democrats, environmentalists, gays, the arts and educations communities, while being able to do business with the Chamber crowd, make sense to the newspaper and win a couple of the key endorsements, such as the firefighters.

You know who else fits that bill? Jeff Danner, probably more than is realized at first glance.  Jeff can win all of those on the left (he’d have to do some work in the African American community), but he can also do business with the Chamber.  In fact, ask yourself this: who is better on neighborhoods, EMS, regionalism and transportation…Danner or Foster?  Wanna know which City Council member meets most often with the Chamber?  That’s right, Jeff Danner.  Which City Council member has the best following in their district? Jeff Danner (Wengay Newton doesn’t count because his district is the least influential of the eight in the city).

The challenge for Jeff is one of perception.  People see him with the earring or the jeans-and-the-blazer and they say they don’t ‘see’ a Mayor.  And they’re probably right.   Jeff is also a registered Independent and is neither a natural campaigner or fundraiser.  But what if you saw him in a suit for the next year?  And what if he went to candidate boot camp for a while? If he did that, with his current strengths, he could emerge in late 2012 as a legitimate threat to Foster.

However, could Danner or Wagman or anyone else finish in the top two out of a multi-way primary, ahead of Foster and Rick Kriseman, who, at this point, represents the most serious threat to a second term for Foster.

Kriseman would not just hold the voting blocks on the left, he would galvanize them.  The African-Americans, the gay community, Democrats…all would make it their holy mission to see Kriseman elected.  And Kriseman’s campaign would become a statewide, perhaps, national cause, with liberal and progressive money flowing in to his campaign, much the same way it did for Tampa’s Bob Buckhorn.

Kriseman also represents a consituency – the so-called west side of the city – which is pent up with anger and frustration towards the Old Northeast crowd, which tends to look down on anyone with an address west of 16th Street.

There is no candidate the Tampa Bay Times would endorse, err, recommend, more heartily than Rick Kriseman.  To the newspaper, Kriseman has spent the last decade fighting the good, noble fight in Tallahassee and now he’s ready to fight the same fight for the soul of the city. To them and most of the rest of the local media, Kriseman is no less a heroic figure than Cincinnatus.

But even with all of that, would that be enough for Kriseman to beat Foster.  The question will be how much of the Chamber/Partnership/Rick Baker crowd he can peel away from Foster.  If there’s a widespread revolt to Foster, then Kriseman could actually win in a rout, but it’s more than likely the Chamber Crowd and the Old Northeast folks will rally around Foster, weary of Kriseman’s overt liberalism.

The bottom line is Foster would need Rick Baker to save his administration, by engaging his loyal followers to give Foster a second chance, by convincing enough socially conservative blacks to stick with Brother Bill and by raising enough cash for Foster that he can keep up with Kriseman’s progressive machine.

Wait a second, I keep mentioning Rick Baker.  Couldn’t he beat Bill Foster in 2013?  The answer is: Absolutely!  In fact, Rick Baker, just as he does its past, represents the best hope for St. Petersburg.   Of course he would win in a heartbeat.  In fact, I don’t know if Foster runs again if Baker wants to serve a third term.

But would Baker even consider it?  There is talk that Baker has grown disillusioned with his successor.

Yet, if you attend any function, especially the ribbon-cuttings Baker actually set in motion, but which Foster is entitled to preside over, at which both men are present, it is obvious who is the Mayor and who is the mayor.

I’d like to think of the 2013 Mayoral Race as a much smaller parallel to last year’s presidential election in Russia: in both, there are two men, one a transformative figure, handcuffed by term-limits from seeking a third term, the other man a lesser version of the first.   In Russia, the transformative figure is Vladimir Putin; in St. Petersburg, it is Rick Baker.  In Russia, Putin told his successor, Alexander Medvedev, thanks for keeping his seat warm, but I’ll take that third term.

Does Rick Baker want to pull a Putin?

The city will have to wait until 2013 to see if he does.

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