ST. PETERSBURG — The names of Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman on the general election ballot will not tell voters that Foster is a Republican and Kriseman a Democrat.
Officially, the runoff election to determine who will lead the city for the next four years is nonpartisan, keeping with traditional view that party politics play no part when it comes to running trash and sewer services.
But Kriseman, who served for six years as a Democratic state lawmaker, has received more than $30,000 in donations from the Florida Democratic Party, which in recent years has worked to place Democrats into prominent local leadership positions to boost its bench of viable candidates for higher office.
Now, both the Republican Party of Florida and the Republican Party of Pinellas County say they may back Foster with money and support, turning the mayoral election in Florida’s fourth largest city into a partisan battle.
That is increasingly becoming the norm for what are supposed to be nonpartisan races, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.
“It’s nonpartisan in name only, particularly in politically divided areas like Florida,” she said. “For Democrats especially, [St. Petersburg] is seen as an office for them to draw candidates from to run for state office.”
Foster has criticized Kriseman for bringing party politics into the contest. Prior to the Aug. 27 primary, he released a statement slamming Kriseman because more than 70 percent of the Democrat’s donations came from outside the city.
In recent days, though, Foster’s campaign staff has been talking with leaders of the state Republican Party about bringing in support, said Niel Allen, Foster’s campaign manager.
“Under the circumstances we would welcome the Republican Party of Florida’s support,” Allen said. “They have reached out to us, and we are talking to them.”
The talks followed a call from Pinellas County state Sen. Jack Latvala for his party to give Foster the same backing as Kriseman is getting from Democrats.
“Sure it’s a nonpartisan race, but are we supposed to leave our guy alone on the battlefield while the other side gangs up on him?” Latvala wrote in a Facebook post. “Bill Foster is the last big city mayor in Florida who happens to be a registered Republican. Don’t think for one minute that doesn’t play a big part in the tens of thousands of dollars the Florida Democratic Party has put into this nonpartisan race!”
Donations from the state Republican Party would be a boost for Foster’s campaign, which suffered a setback Wednesday when City Council Member Jeff Danner became the fifth of the eight-member St. Petersburg City Council to endorse Kriseman. Despite the advantage of being the incumbent, Foster’s margin of victory over Kriseman in the primary was only about 900 votes.
Kriseman raised more money than Foster during the primary elections, bringing in roughly $156,000, which included donations from a fundraising event hosted by Alison Tant, chair of the Florida Democratic Party. Donations from the party paid the salary of Kriseman’s campaign manager, Cesar Fernandez, who previously managed Jeff Clemmons’ successful 2012 run for the Florida Senate.
By contrast, fellow Democratic primary candidate Kathleen Ford received no help, prompting Clay Colson, a Pasco County Democratic official, to file a grievance with the party about its support of Kriseman.
Foster raised $148,000 during the primary. Allen said he would like to raise a similar amount for the much-shorter general election season to compete with Kriseman. State law limits donations from individuals and companies to $500 but allows political parties to donate as much as $50,000.
“We certainly are trying to refill our campaign coffers, so we can get our message out,” he said.
With Republicans enjoying commanding majorities in both the Florida House of Representatives and Florida Senate, Democrats have viewed the nonpartisan mayoral races in large cities as a way to develop potential candidates for governor and other statewide positions. That’s critical for Democrats, as U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is the only Florida Democrat to hold a statewide office.
Bringing party politics into the nonpartisan races to lead big cities makes sense for Democrats because the majority of its support lies in urban areas. That’s true in St. Petersburg, where registered Democratic voters outnumber registered Republicans by more than 30,000.
Democrats currently occupy the mayor’s offices in Jacksonville, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Tallahassee and across the bay in Tampa. Running those cities can boost name recognition and give candidates a proven track record. Victories in mayoral races can also build momentum for bigger elections, said state Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, the incoming Democratic leader in the House, who has endorsed Kriseman.
“We have a Democratic mayor in Orlando, a Democratic mayor in Tampa,” Rouson said. “This I-4 and I-275 corridor is extremely important in presidential politics, in gubernatorial politics and other statewide elections. Sometimes it just makes political sense to support individuals.”
Local Democrats argue that Kriseman should get support from the party because Foster has taken advantage of his office to benefit Republicans.
Foster actively supported Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential election, said Ramsay McLauchlan, former chairman of the Pinellas County Democratic Party.
And in a debate last week , Foster bragged that “it helped to have a friend in the governor’s office,” as he took credit for preventing Gov. Rick Scott from vetoing $5 million in funding for a business school at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
“If Bill Foster uses his position as mayor to help Republicans in the state, one can see why Democrats wouldn’t’ think it’s wrong for them to step up and help Rick Kriseman,” McLauchlan said.
With other Democrats now eliminated, the Pinellas County Democratic Party would call on members to support Kriseman with donations and through volunteering, McLauchlan said.
Foster has received some support from Pinellas County Republicans and is likely to get more during the general election, said Michael Guju, the chairman of the Pinellas County Republican party.
“We may, and the state party may jump in and contribute to the mayor to counteract the out-of-town consultant, the out-of-town influence that comes with fundraising with Tallahassee,” he said.
The injection of overt partisanship into the race is unlikely to turn off voters, MacManus said. With turnout for local elections averaging only 30 percent, most of those voting already know the political allegiances of candidates.
“People who are going to turn out tend to be activist more than [the] casual type of voters,” said MacManus.