Today is Primary Election day for City Council races in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, I had one candidate ask me last night if I thought voter turn out would exceed 15%. On September 11th, what could be a more patriotic thing to do than to go out and exercise your right, and duty, to vote?
There are 2 races on the ballot today. Primaries are being held for Districts 3 and 5. Districts 1 and 7, with only 2 qualified candidates each, skip the primary and will be on the ballot for the city wide General Election in November.
Today, only voters in Districts 3 and 5 can vote to winnow down the number of candidates for the Council seat in their districts to 2 each. The top two vote getters within these districts today will go on to the city wide voting in the November General Election.
The District 5 race features one of only two incumbents on the ballot this cycle. Acting Council Chair Jamie Bennett is seeking re-election to a post he first won in 2001 in a special election to fill the seat of Larry Williams who had resigned to run for Mayor. Bennett drew no opposition in his bid for a full term in 2003. The widely held belief that Bennett will run for Mayor in two years has drawn at least one candidate to challenge him this time.
Chris Kelly, a community activist, appears to be running with 2009 in mind. Kelly is a former President of the Roser Park Neighborhood Association. He did move to Pinellas Point a few years ago, but has not been civicly active within the district. His campaign seems to be aimed at establishing himself as a viable candidate in 2009 should Bennett vacate the seat to make his Mayoral bid. Bennett's other challenger is little know school teacher Debra Woodard. Ms. Woodard has run a perfunctory campaign at best.
The much more competitive race is for the District 3 council seat. This district, encompassing Snell Isle, Shore Acres and other neighborhoods in northeastern St. Pete will see Council Member Bill Foster leave the seat due to term limits. We will probably see Foster again in a Mayoral bid in 2009.
Meanwhile, 4 candidates are vying to replace Foster. Ed Montanari is Foster's anointed heir apparent. Montanari, an America Airlines pilot, was Foster's campaign manager in 2003. Montanari was groomed for this run by being appointed Chair of the Albert Whitted Airport Advisory Board. Prior to that, Montanari, who has been heard to say that "the Mayor's the boss", had no civic involvement. Montanari's connections have enabled him to lead the pack in fund raising. However, as befits a good airline pilot, no one will mistake Montanari for Mr. Excitement.
Returning from his unsuccessful 2003 bid to unseat Foster is now retired Northeast High teacher Bill Dudley. Dudley got through a 3 way primary in 2003, but was drubbed by Foster in the citywide general election. To improve his chances this time, Dudley is President of the Snell Isle Neighborhood Association. Much like John Edwards, Dudley has been running for this seat since his defeat 4 years ago. The experience shows. Dudley is a much better candidate this time around, and has managed to raise substantial dollars as well.
The significant new face in this race belongs to Cathy Harrelson. Harrelson is a financial professional whose long civic involvement has been focused on environmental concerns. Harrelson is immediate past President of the 3,000 member strong Suncoast Sierra Club. She has also been recently appointed to the County board advising on the Booker Creek preserve. There she was elected Policy Chair by her peers.
Harrelson brings the rare combination of business acumen and enviromentalist to the race. She also has the most realistic chance of maintaining the two woman minority on the Council. With Renee Flowers leaving the District 7 seat due to term limits, Leslie Curran is the only other woman on Council. Also, in this allegedly nonpartisan race, Harrelson is the only Democrat.
Mortgage Broker Cliff Gephart rounds out the field in District 3. Gephart has not run a substantial campaign, but speaks well in forums. Hopefully Mr. Gephart will stay involved in civic affairs and try again sometime in the future.
The District 3 race is really too close to call at this time. Dudley, Montanari and Harrelson are closely bunched and each has run a vigorous campaign. Which two advance to the General Election in November could literally come down to a hand full of votes. So if you are reading this in District 3 today, be sure to get out and vote. Your vote will definitely matter in this race.