ST. PETERSBURG — When voters went to the polls for the August primary election, the fate of the city’s new pier was also at stake.
Now, with the country in the throes of a government shutdown and no pier referendum on the ballot, interest in whether incumbent Bill Foster or challenger Rick Kriseman will lead St. Petersburg over the next four years is proving harder to drum up.
In the 11 days since more than 62,000 ballots were mailed to city voters, just more than 9,400 ballots or 15 percent have been returned. That is more than 3,300 votes fewer than at the same stage in the primary election.
More evidence of voter apathy came Monday when Foster and Kriseman clashed in a sparsely attended debate at City Hall where debate organizers and members of the media comprised roughly half the audience.
It’s not just the government shutdown distracting from the race. It has also been overshadowed by Congressman C.W. Bill Young’s decision not to run for re-election, creating a competitive open congressional seat, said Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, political science professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
“It’s taking a lot of the oxygen away from the candidates and this race,” she said. “It’s hard to get through all that noise.”
Boosted by the presence of the pier referendum, voter turnout was 31.5 percent in the August primary, up from 23 percent in 2009.
The Nov. 5 election could be a rare case where turnout in the primary exceeds the general election, Scourfield McLauchlan said.
Despite the small crowd at Monday’s debate, Foster and Kriseman traded barbs, looking to eke out an advantage as the campaign enters the final three weeks.
As he has done repeatedly, Foster slammed Kriseman’s record during his six-year stint as a Democratic lawmaker in Tallahassee.
“Over the past 3 years, he didn’t file a single piece of legislation that made it out of committee; he didn’t file a single piece of legislation that created jobs,” Foster said. “He put the interest of party over the needs of our citizens.”
Kriseman pointed to legislation he backed that increased the punishment for DUI convictions, gave assistance to owners of homes with Chinese drywall and his opposition to offshore drilling.
He touted Foster’s failure to resolve the city’s dispute with the Tampa Bay Rays and the uncertainty over the future of the pier as evidence of Foster’s failed leadership.
“If we don’t’ make a change, we’ll still be dealing with the same problems – issues like the Rays and the pier,” he said.
Kriseman also listed the city’s marketing of its arts and attractions as another Foster failure, a criticism that was repeated by the Urban Land Institute in its recent report on the city’s downtown waterfront. The report described the city’s overall marketing as inadequate.
The city’s marketing budget was slashed over the past three years as it struggled with the effects of the real estate crash. Annual revenue from property taxes dropped by roughly $35 million between 2008 and 2012, Foster said.
“I was about keeping our city workers employed and focusing on essential needs,” Foster said.
In their closing comments, both candidates said St. Petersburg is poised to grow and prosper with their leadership.
“We have tremendous opportunities, but we’re not going to get there if we maintain the status quo,” Kriseman said.
Foster pointed to recent polls that showed 72 percent of respondents belive the city is heading in the right direction. “That’s not just coincidence,” Foster said. “There is absolutely nothing status quo about this city.”