ST. PETERSBURG — Downtown may be booming, but a series of high-profile controversies and questions about his leadership likely cost incumbent Mayor Bill Foster as voters on Tuesday elected challenger Rick Kriseman to replace him.
Kriseman’s victory in the most expensive and arguably most partisan election in city history leaves Foster as the first mayor to lose while in office since the city adopted the strong mayor system in 1993. Both of Foster’s predecessors, Rick Baker and Dave Fischer, were reelected.
Provisional results late Tuesday gave Kriseman a 10-point lead over Foster, an advantage of roughly 6,000 votes. He will be sworn into office on Jan 2.
At a jubilant election-night party attended by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and District 13 congressional candidate Alex Sink, Kriseman said voters had sent a clear message and that he was honored to have been elected.
“They are ready for change,” he said. “The city wants leadership to be not just reactive but proactive.”
Throughout the campaign, Kriseman attacked Foster’s leadership on thorny issues, including the stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays, the defeat of the city’s chosen pier design and a focus on downtown that left other parts of the city feeling ignored.
He has promised to improve police relations with Midtown residents, to tighten the city’s police pursuit policy and to have a new pier design selected by April. He also plans to spend more money on restoring neighborhoods and make city officials more accountable by conducting more frequent performance reviews.
Roughly 53,000 votes were cast in the race, a turnout of about 32 percent. That is slightly more than the August primary, when turnout was boosted by the referendum on the Lens.
The mood at Foster’s election-night party at Sylvia’s Restaurant on 22nd Street South was more resigned than somber. Supporters gave him a standing ovation when he entered accompanied by his family.
Foster said he had called Kriseman to congratulate him and praised him for running a spirited and well-organized campaign. He plans to meet with Kriseman this week to work on a transition plan.
Foster said he was not upset at his defeat but was disappointed. But he said he was satisfied that he had left the city in better shape than when he took office.
“She’s all yours,” Foster said he told Kriseman. “Don’t wreck it.”
The race, though officially nonpartisan, developed into a major political skirmish between the state Democratic and Republican parties, putting the race on the radar of political observers across the country.
Democrats contributed more than $40,000 to pay the salary of Kriseman’s campaign manager.
Foster did not get direct support from the Republican Party of Florida until September, when it paid for a staffer to work part-time on his campaign.
Only in the last month, with Foster trailing in the polls, did the party begin making direct donations to his campaign and also a $100,000 donation to Accountability in Government, an electioneering group that ran attack ads against Kriseman.
“The Republican Party needs to not take elections for granted,” said Michael Guju, chairman of the Pinellas County Republicans. “They need to get involved earlier in the campaign.”
Sink said the race was not about party politics but about finding the person with the right vision for the city.
“It’s not about Democrats and Republicans,” she said. “It’s about the future of St. Petersburg and the future of Pinellas County, and the voters recognize people who are forward-thinking.”
Former mayoral candidate Scott Wagman said Foster’s reputation was damaged by the uncertainty over The Pier following the defeat of the Lens project in the August primary.
“That was an issue that opened the door to attack Bill on leadership,” he said.
Kriseman’s campaign, which was run by paid professionals, also gave him an advantage over Foster, Wagman said.
“Foster’s campaign was run by friends and volunteers. You can’t do that anymore,” he said.
Foster’s standing was also damaged by his lack of support from City Council, six of whom endorsed Kriseman. Former Mayor Rick Baker, also a Republican, declined to lend his support to Foster, a departure from 2009, when he stumped for Foster as his successor.
Foster supporters at the polls said he should be given another term after guiding the city through the recession.
“He’s taken a lot of flak for things that weren’t his responsibility,” said Historic Uptown resident Stephen Dyches.
Voters who backed Kriseman highlighted Foster’s leadership on The Pier and the Rays issues and said it was time for a new leader who focused on more than downtown.
“He hasn’t been good at getting the community to work together,” said South St. Petersburg resident Brett Rahall. “He hasn’t paid any attention to the south side.”