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Five Democrats endorse Rick Kriseman in nonpartisan St. Petersburg mayoral race

ST. PETERSBURG — While past mayoral elections have gotten ugly at times, party politics largely hasn't mattered when voters cast ballots for a city leader. This year could be different.

The Democrat-vs.-Republican paradox that dominates state and national politics could surface in the coming months as Democrat Rick Kriseman battles Republican Bill Foster, the incumbent mayor.

After entering the race this month, Kriseman is headed to Tallahassee next week for a fundraiser co-hosted by Allison Tant, the new chair of the Florida Democratic Party. Also hosting the event: Former state legislator and chief financial officer candidate Loranne Ausley and her husband.

Kriseman acknowledged that raising money in Tallahassee isn't common for city elections. But he became friends with many people while serving in the House for six years, he added.

"To me, it's natural to reach out to people you know," he said. "I expect I'll have Republicans endorsing me and donating."

The nonpartisan race here is no different from others across the country.

"It's partisan in name only," said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor. "We're seeing more and more of this."

She attributes the trend to the electronic age where voters can go online to find political affiliations and the political parties of donors.

She isn't surprised that Kriseman is taking a trip to Tallahassee for money.

Candidates tap people they know, MacManus said: "You have to get it where you can."

On Wednesday, Kriseman also announced support from five Pinellas Democrats: County Commissioners Janet Long and Charlie Justice, state representatives Dwight Dudley and Darryl Rouson, and St. Petersburg council member Charlie Gerdes.

A notable name missing from the list is Ken Welch, the chair of the Pinellas County Commission. Welch told the Tampa Bay Times he cannot make endorsements because he serves on the county's canvassing board.

The endorsements shouldn't surprise voters.

Kriseman, a former City Council member, served in Tallahassee with Long, Rouson and Justice. Kriseman also beat Gerdes in a race for 2006 for a House seat.

Gerdes, who sits next to Foster at council meetings, said he alerted the mayor that he was supporting Kriseman.

Gerdes said he respects the love that Foster has for the city, but he said Kriseman's experience in the Legislature could help improve the city.

The endorsement, Gerdes said, will not impact his council votes because citizens come before politics.

"I made it clear I will not participate in outright partisan campaigns for mayor," Gerdes said. "I will not speak negatively about anything or anyone."

A partisan campaign might not sway voters anyway.

St. Petersburg is a city where 80 percent of precincts have more registered Democrats than Republicans. Yet the city keeps electing Republicans as mayor, including Foster and his predecessor, Rick Baker.

The Republican Party dominates nearly every statewide office in Florida. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is the lone Democrat elected across Florida.

A Kriseman victory would put a Democrat in charge of another large city in the Sunshine State. Democrats hold top offices in Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville.

"It's a recruitment effort," MacManus said. "It's creating a bench."

Foster's campaign hasn't been active since he filed to run. He hasn't held a fundraiser, and his website is still under construction. He did not respond for a comment Wednesday.

When Foster won in 2009, he raised nearly $250,000, the most of any other candidate.

Kriseman said he hasn't asked the party leaders for help and isn't ruling out going back to Tallahassee for more events.

A Democratic Party spokesman said Tant was unavailable Wednesday, but released a statement calling Kriseman a "tireless advocate" and "proven leader" and said "the party plans to put our full support behind Rick as we have done in mayoral races across the state."

Ausley, the co-host of Kriseman's party, said she knew him even before they served in the Legislature together. She stressed that Democrats hold mayor's offices in some of Florida's biggest cities.

"For me, it's about Rick being a personal friend," she said. "It's a good opportunity for him."

The head of the Republican Party of Florida did not return a call to say if it plans to help Foster.

With the primary still six months away, voters should expect more candidates to enter the race. The qualifying period runs from June 11-24.

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

Five Democrats endorse Rick Kriseman in nonpartisan St. Petersburg mayoral race 02/27/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 12:13am]
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