Saturday, September 22, 2007

Working on the Basics

I have not been on these pages hardly at all lately. There are two main reasons for that. The first is because I have been working at the basic building block level of elected politics - City Council elections. The second is, well, er, it is football season and the Florida Gators are 4 and 0.

But this diary is about the hard work of building a bench down on the hustings. If you want to know what life is like at the bottom of the political totem pole, about failures and successes and lessons learned, follow me below the fold...

I live in St. Petersburg, Florida. St. Petersburg is a city of about 250,000 folks smack dab on the west coast of Florida. We are the western anchor of the infamous I-4 corridor in Florida. Our county, Pinellas, (pop approx 1 million) went for Al Gore in 2000 but went for George Bush by a small margin in 2004. So, as a political scientist friend of mine likes to say, we are the swing county of the swing region of the swing state of the country. Real swingers. And we are doing all this swinging right here at Ground Zero.

St. Petersburg holds its municipal elections in November of odd numbered years. We have an eight member City Council and a strong Mayor form of city government. The Mayor and Council can serve two four year terms before being forced out by term limits. This is an "off year" for city elections, as the Mayor's seat is not up for election. The four odd numbered city council seats are up for election. Officially the Mayor and Council races are "non partisan". Having said that, we have a very conservative Republican mayor, Rick Baker, a friend of and protege of former Governor Jeb Bush. But five of our eight City Council seats are held by Democrats. There's that swing thing again.

There are two seats coming open on the St. Petersburg City Council due to term limits this cycle. One is held by a Democrat, Rene Flowers. The other is held by a Republican, Bill Foster. Both are considered likely Mayoral candidates in 2009. But by some estimates, so is half the population of St. Pete. Council members must reside in the districts they represent. St. Pete's Council districts are drawn pretty straight forwardly, i.e with a minimum of gerrymandering. However, due to the housing patterns in St. Petersburg, Rene Flowers, an African American Democrat, will be succeeded by an African American Democrat.

In fact, only two candidates filed for Rene Flowers District 7 seat. Gershom Faulkner is a 36 year old African American male. The former Marine served for six years as legislative assistant to State Representative Frank Peterman. He is currently Outreach Coordinator for Congresswoman Kathy Castor (D, FL-11). Faulkner served as Deputy Campaign Manager through Castor's primary campaign last cycle, delivering for her the hugely African American St. Petersburg portion of FL-11. He then moved on to take the position of state wide African American outreach coordinator for Jim Davis' ill fated campaign for Florida's Governor last year. By contrast, his opponent, Wingay Newton, also an African American male, is a relative political newcomer. He is, however, a neighborhood association president and his brother happens to be head of the St. Petersburg Fire Fighters Union.

Because only two candidates filed for this seat, they avoided a primary election. They will be voted on City wide in the general election on November 6th.

This was not the case in the other seat coming open this cycle. The District 3 seat held by Republican Bill Foster drew a four person crowd. This district includes some of the more affluent and more heavily Republican precincts in St. Petersburg. However, it is part of a swing State House seat most recently won by Democrat Bill Heller last year. It was hoped that this seat would provide a pick up opportunity for Democrats.

To that end, an excellent candidate was successfully urged to run. Cathy Harrelson is a single mother, a financial services professional with years of experience working for a very well known local municipal bond firm. And she was immediate past president of the 3,000 member strong Sun Coast Sierra Club. Joining Harrelson in the race for this seat were three white Republican men. Cliff Gephardt, a mortgage broker, is a political neophyte. Bill Dudley is a retired high school wrestling coach who finished second to Bill Foster for this seat four years ago. And Ed Montanari is an American Airlines pilot. However he was Bill Foster's campaign manager four years ago. To further groom him for this run, Montanari was appointed to head a prestigious task force on the future of our downtown airport in St. Petersburg. To say that Montanari is the candidate of the St. Petersburg Republican establishment is by no means an understatement.

In the only case of an incumbent Council member running for re election, Council Member Jamie Bennett drew two opponents and was also faced with a primary election. Bennett is a white male Democrat in a just over 50% African American District. District 5 covers the southern portion of St. Petersburg. He drew another white male Democrat, activist Chris Kelly and an African American private school teacher, Debra Woodard. Bennett was first elected to Council in 2001 to fill an unexpired term. In 2003, Bennett was re elected without opposition. Kelly and Woodard are making their first political runs.

Distinct 1 features the other incumbent Council member on the ballot. Democrat Herb Polson, the current Council Member was appointed to fill the seat vacated by now State Representative Rick Kriseman. Polson was a long time City employee who started his career with the city in the Police Department and wound up as the City's lobbyist, He retired from the City employment last year so that he could be appointed to fill the seat Rick Kriseman vacated to run for the Stat Legislature. So this is Polson's first election campaign. Polson is opposed by 70 something former Council Member, Republican Bob Kersteen.

Primary elections for Districts 3 and 5 were held September 11th. You would think that such a date would spark an outpouring of patriotism and every one would show up at the polls to vote. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In the District 5 race, only 8% of the registered voters cast a ballot. That's right, only 8%. Jamie Bennett, the incumbent Democrat Council Member advanced to the general election with 66% of the vote. Chris Kelly finished second with 19%.

In the District 3 race turnout was somewhat better, a whopping 14%. The results of this race were much more competitive as well. Ed Montanari, the Republican establishment candidate, was the top vote getter with 42% of the vote. finishing second and also moving on to the general election in November was Bill Dudley, the retired high school wrestling coach and driver's ed teacher. Dudley reeled in 30% of the vote. That was 206 votes more than Cathy Harrelson, the Democrat received. Harrelson gathered in 23% of the vote falling short of the top two vote getters. The District 3 seat will remain in Republican hands this cycle as both Montanari and Dudley are Republicans.

Cathy Harrelson did win a few precincts. However, the precincts she did win were both more heavily Democratic and turned out at a much lower rate than most of the the precincts won by her opponents. The precincts that went heaviest for Montanari turned out at twice to four times the turn out rate of the precincts that Harrelson won. This just points out what i have been carping about. We Dems need to do a much better job of getting our voters to the polls. It will continue to hurt us if we continue to get big percentages in heavily Democratic areas but get a low turn out rate. We need to find some way to get our voters to the polls in the same proportion the Rs get theirs. If we can do that, we will start winning a lot more elections around here.

Stay tuned. I will be coming back with some diaries about the day to day effort in a municipal election campaign. This is where it all starts. Our future state and national leaders will be groomed right here at this level of government. It is crucial that we get good people to run for these seats and to get our people elected.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Are there five Democrats on council?
Great. Jeff Danner must have switched from Independent.

We lost one Republican when Bryan left.