In their first televised debate, former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker put incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman on the defensive over his handling of the city’s sewage crisis and construction of a new Pier.
Kriseman returned fire, attacking Baker’s conservative ideology and previous interactions with the LGBTQ community.
The one-hour confrontation was the second debate exclusively between the race’s two top polling candidates, with the four other contenders excluded by sponsors Bay News 9 and the Tampa Bay Times. More controversially, the two media sponsors also opted to change the ticketing set-up, making it an invitation-only format among Baker and Kriseman supporters.
That move left the 850-seat Palladium Theater barely half full.
It was also the first time the candidates engaged since a scathing Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report was released Friday night about the sewage situation. The report blamed the Kriseman administration for not heeding the warning from mid-level utility employees about capacity issues created by closing the Albert Whited Water Treatment Plant. As a result, when heavy rains came, the system failed, and millions of gallons of partially treated sewage were dumped into local waterways.
Baker has accused Kriseman of blaming everyone but himself for the problem. But Kriseman attempted to own the situation Tuesday night.
“We could have done a much better job than we did,” Kriseman admitted, specifically about communicating the issue with the sewage spills to the public. “I will sit here and tell the viewers, yeah, we could have done it better, absolutely. And we will do it better. We have a plan in place to make sure that it won’t happen again.”
Baker pounced, saying it was the first time Kriseman had taken responsibility for the crisis.
“He was blaming it on former administrations. He’s blamed it on climate change. He’s blamed it on some employees,” Baker said. “He’s blamed it on just about everything else.”
Baker boasted that there were no “major spills” during his nine-year tenure, but said that four months after Kriseman shut down Albert Whitted in 2015 came the first major spill in 16 years, with over 30 gallons of wastewater spilled. “That’s impacting our people’s lives, their health, fish in the bay. All of it.”
Baker continued to hit on the issue, saying that up until that point, it was still not a disaster. But failing to open the plant up after the 2015 spill, he said, was a dereliction of duty.
“What’s inexcusable was after the closure and the spill in 2015, we didn’t reopen that plant,” Baker lamented. “Why? Who knows why? We’re not taking any steps today,” he said, adding that if he were mayor, he would do so now.
Kriseman later said if knew now what he didn’t know then, he would have kept it open. Moving forward, he still wouldn’t commit to reopening Albert Whited, because to do so now he said would take four years and $40 million to do so. Baker questioned those numbers.
Another issue Baker attacked Kriseman about was the process of building a new Pier. There has been discontent expressed amongst the public during this campaign regarding the escalating costs of the project.
Co-moderator Adam Smith of the Times (who shared those duties with Bay News 9’s Holly Gregory) asked Kriseman about the fact that the new Pier was supposed to decrease the city’s annual subsidy, which had been at $1.4 million. The new subsidy is now at $2 million. Kriseman rejected the notion that the subsidy was supposed to go away, and said the reason it’s more expensive than previously is that it’s an expanded piece of land, now extended to 26 acres including the uplands.
Baker slammed Kriseman on the issue, saying he betrayed the public when he stated they would choose the Pier design, but ultimately went with the second most popular choice instead. He rejected the idea though that if elected he would slow down the process, saying that people are now “tired of waiting for the Pier.”
With his response, Kriseman then got technical, saying that under CCNA rules (that stands for Consultants Competitive Negotiation Act), a straw poll popular vote is only “a criteria” in the ultimate selection of the Pier design.
Later in the hour, Kriseman went on the offensive, comparing his political ideology to Baker’s. The former mayor has chastised Kriseman from his first day on the campaign trail that “that’s all they’ve got” when it comes to making an issue about his support for Republicans like Sarah Palin, John McCain and Mitt Romney.
“Fixing potholes is not partisan, but your party represents your values,” Kriseman said. “And my values are against the repeal of Obamacare and the more than 10,000 people in the city of St. Petersburg who are going to lose their insurance coverage.
“So, yeah, I’m paying attention about what’s happening in Washington, and I’m paying attention to what’s happening in Tallahassee because those are our citizens in this city who are going to be impacted.”
“My values don’t come from my party,” Baker responded. “My values come from my faith, my values come from my experience, my education and from the people in this city who I’ve gotten to know in the last 10 years.”
Baker declined to back up his 2008 comment that Sarah Palin would make a “great vice president” when Kriseman asked directly (and Baker has never acknowledged whether or not he voted for Donald Trump for president).
Regarding the LGBT community, Baker realized that his refusal to attend the Pride Parade during the years while he was in office was going to be an issue in this new campaign, which is why he feels he’s addressed it sufficiently by making sure to acknowledge the LGBTQ community during his campaign kickoff speech. Kriseman has been in sync with the gay community for a long time, and he was aggressive when this issue arose late in the debate, chastising Baker for missing the Pride event and parade, one of the biggest events in the city each year.
“To not fully participate in that event, like you do the Santa parade, sends a message to the community that you’re not as important,” Kriseman said. “You don’t mean the same amount and rise up to the same level as the rest of the community.”
Former Police Chief Goliath Davis has always been a polarizing figure in St. Petersburg politics, but both men have enjoyed his support in the past. Davis is backing Baker in this year’s contest, leading Smith to provocatively ask if former Mayor Bill Foster was correct in firing Davis back in 2011 for not attending the funerals of two slain St. Petersburg Police Officers, and did attend the funeral of the convict who killed those officers.
Kriseman said it was “insulting” for Davis not to attend the funeral of the officers, while Baker acknowledged that while Davis did not attend the funerals, he did attend the wakes of those officers. And he said he would not have fired Davis.
The primary election takes place Aug. 29, in five weeks. In addition to Baker and Kriseman, Jesse Nevel, Anthony Cates, Theresa “Mama T” Lassiter and Paul Congemi will also be on the ballot.
After a raucous mayoral forum 15 days ago — marred by Nevel supporters — the Times and Bay News 9 declined to distribute tickets for this debate to the general public, as advertised. That led to St. Petersburg College dropping its sponsorship of the event, and making the whole affair a rather somnolent experience, as Gregory advised the crowd to remain quiet until the end of the evening.
For all intents and purposes, the stillness in the crowd could have been replicated by just holding the debate in Bay News 9’s Carillon Park studio.