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Dems Open 2021 Door for a GOP Mayor in St. Pete

September 21, 2019 - 7:00am
Jeff Brandes would be a powerful opponent in a predominantly blue city
Jeff Brandes would be a powerful opponent in a predominantly blue city

An ordinarily innocuous St. Petersburg City Council race has roiled local politics and become a key bellwether as to who will be the next mayor of Florida’s fifth largest city.

The race to succeed term-limited Rick Kriseman as St. Petersburg mayor is two years away, but political machinations suddenly opened the door for a Republican to capture the mayoralty in this Democratic stronghold in 2021.

It started July 1 with a monumental gaffe by a political pro who should know better.

City Council member Darden Rice, an historic progressive who has made no secret of her mayoral aspirations, endorsed Republican Robert Blackmon over Democrat John Hornbeck in this fall’s District 1 council race.

Rice’s action turned off many local Democrats. Though the city races are technically “non-partisan,” party politics always comes into play here.

Darden Rice, John Hornbeck, Robert Blackmon, Rick Baker
Darden Rice, John Hornbeck, Robert Blackmon, Rick Baker
Shortly after the endorsement, a Rice confidante told me her action was “a no-brainer.”  As it turns out, supporting Blackmon, who can be described as more than a nominal Republican, over Hornbeck has thrust Rice into a controversy of her own making.

Until Rice’s endorsement, the most controversial issue in the council race was the question of Blackmon’s residency. Hornbeck and others claimed he did not reside within District 1. Blackmon declared the matter closed with a home sale and his subsequent address. The point remains murky.

Rice was the early favorite to succeed Kriseman, but no more. She alienated a significant portion of the Democratic base regardless of the District 1 result on Nov. 5. The more astute move: no endorsement whatsoever. Inarguable.

Blackmon told Sunshine State News unequivocally there was no quid pro for the endorsement.

“There was absolutely no deals made," he asserted. "And, importantly, we do not know who will be running for mayor in 2021."

Then why would Rice take the risk?

“It’s a transparent move to move to the center,” said a Pinellas County officeholder who wished to remain anonymous. “She was advised by Barry Edwards to support Blackmon.”

The politico added Edwards told Rice that in addition to reaching beyond her progressive credentials, the endorsement means she can count on Republican donations in her mayoral run. That’s more than a long shot the way the race is shaping up.

Edwards, with a loathsome personal history, is a longtime political operative and a board member of the Poynter Foundation, parent of the Tampa Bay Times. He also is reportedly helping Blackmon.

Despite the considerable Democratic majority, Republicans have had success winning St. Pete’s top spot with two of the last three mayors carrying the GOP banner. However, during Kriseman’s successful 2013 campaign and subsequent reelection over a formidable opponent, local Dems became more energized and organized. The feeling was, future St. Pete mayor’s races would be theirs to lose. Sadly for the Democrats, that process has gotten a 28-month head start.

Here’s the St. Pete voter breakdown by party as of Aug. 31:  Democrats, 85,227; Republicans, 49,194; No Party Affiliation, 48,651.  Theoretically, a Republican would need around 80 percent of the NPA vote if the electorate votes along party lines. The Dem edge in all of Pinellas County is a razor thin 3,821.

County Commissioner Ken Welch, another Democrat, has been mentioned often as a probable mayoral candidate. Others are waiting in the wings. One name floated in the past few weeks is state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a popular Republican who is term-limited through the end of 2022.

Brandes would be a powerful opponent in a predominantly Democratic city. He could be self-funding. He is not a doctrinaire and reaches across the aisle. And he’s ambitious. If he should win the mayoralty, the Republicans would be forced to defend his Senate seat in a special election. Brandes could live with that.

Then there is former Mayor Rick Baker. He was favored to defeat Kriseman at the 2017 campaign’s outset, but a notable intemperate outburst coupled with a tightly woven, disciplined Kriseman effort doomed Baker.

It was thought that the loss slammed the door on Baker’s political career, but whispers on social media describe a re-energized Baker ready to take on the world. A strongly rumored challenge to incumbent Congressman Charlie Crist is deemed suicidal. Running for mayor again would be far more viable.

It’s difficult to envision Brandes and Baker in the same race. If Brandes demurs, Baker gets a wide berth, even if a lesser known Republican joins the fray. He has the job experience, oratorical seasoning, and can easily get the band back together.

Whether it’s Brandes, Baker, or another prominent Republican, the GOP candidate now has plenty of ammo to work with.

Jim Bleyer, a former reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and Tampa Tribune, writes the Tampa Bay Beat blog.


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Jim, you forgot your meds again ;^) …...…...And again we see why you are a former reporter as so biased …...………...Dems, progressives are going to keep St Pete and they already took Tampa, Hillsborough back and things are not looking good for repubs in 2020 thanks to Chump will bring every dem, independent out...………….Deal with it

Thanks for your incisive, intelligent comment. If you believe Jane Castor is a true Democrat because of her recent registration switch, I am not the one off my meds. The Tampa progressive community abhors her. And nationally, the Dems are too fractured to make any meaningful inroads next year.

Jane is progressive enough, unlike chump repubs we don't enforce total obedience. just being a decent person ....And a lot more than Jane taking over Hillsborough, Tampa and St Pete...……..... The right is just so far right, they can no longer see the middle...………….Next yr the Senate will be as biased against Repubs as it was against dem in 2018 and not a chance Chump will win as the repub party keeps shrinking as decent people leave in droves as they don't think good people walk with KKK, Nazis, many just staying home disgusted or vote dem. ……...…..So I'm not sure how dems won't make large inroads taking over the fed government, more cities, counties and the odds get better every day Chump has a twitter account, lying his *** off...……. 12k lies and counting.

It will boil down to the question of whether the majority of the American electorate is ill-educated and ill-informed deplorables who are currently in vogue - or - whether the majority is more informed, reasonable, and responsible, and cares about democracy and effective governance of this country. I prefer to believe the real majority is the latter - but - maybe the C-/D+ crowd is the real majority. (?) We'll see on November 3, 2020.



Well said, Jim. And I looked at Edward's history. "Loathsome" is putting it mildly!

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