ST. PETERSBURG — After seven months of campaigning to stay in office, incumbent Mayor Bill Foster at last has an ally on City Council.
Campaign reports filed last week show that Council Member Bill Dudley donated $100 to Foster but, more importantly, is now publicly backing Foster’s bid for re-election. Foster’s opponent, Rick Kriseman, has been endorsed by six of the eight-members on council.
Dudley, a Republican, said he seldom makes endorsements but changed his mind because Kriseman has brought party politics into the nonpartisan race.
The former Democratic state lawmaker has used his Tallahassee connections to win big-name endorsements from high-leve political figures, including former Gov. Charlie Crist, former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson. The Florida Democratic Party has backed Kriseman with roughly $40,000 in donations to pay the salary of campaign manager Cesar Fernandez.
“He’s taken it to another level,” Dudley said. “A good portion of his campaign money is coming from outside the city. A lot of [donors] have ties to national and state Democratic party for something that’s supposed to be nonpartisan.”
Dudley also questioned whether Kriseman would weaken the city’s negotiating and legal position in its dispute with the Tampa Bay Rays over the team’s desire to move from Tropicana Field.
“The way he indicated it, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of compensation for the city.”
Kriseman supporters counter that Foster is backed by the Republican Party of Florida, which is paying for regional field director Chris Martin to work part-time on his campaign. Campaign reports filed at the end of last week show that the state party had donated almost $14,000 to Foster’s campaign.
That helped Foster raise almost $29,000 in a two-week period that ended Oct. 11 — roughly $6,000 more than Kriseman, who still holds a slight fundraising advantage.
Combined, the pair have now raised more than $500,000. By contrast, Foster and his 2009 general election opponent, Kathleen Ford, raised a combined $325,000, although Ford has never been known as a prodigious fundraiser.
That isn’t all the money being spent in the race either with outside groups paying for mailers attacking both candidates. Fact Check Florida, an electioneering communications organization with a Jacksonville address, has raised almost $70,000 in donations, according to reports. Group Chairman Matthew Martz worked with Fernandez on last year’s campaign for State Sen. Jeff Clemens. Mailers sent to voters by the group slam Foster for a failed fire-fee plan that City Council rejected. Meanwhile, the Tampa group Working Together for Florida has sent out mailers characterizing Kriseman as a career politician. The group’s website shows that it received a $100,000 donation from the Florida Leadership Fund, a committee headed by Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala, who has led calls for the state Republican party to back Foster.
The parties’ interest in the St. Petersburg election was likely heightened following the recent victory of Democratic candidate Amanda Murphy in state House District 36 in neighboring Pasco County. Democrats would like to continue that momentum, while Republicans want to set a marker for the upcoming special congressional election to replace U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of political science at University of South Florida St. Petersburg,
“This has become the most partisan race, and we’re seeing party money added to spikes that we’ve never seen,” he said “You’re getting mega-money now. The political stakes are higher this time around.”