Sunday, October 21, 2007

Down on the Hustings - More Local Politics

I can't believe it has been over a month since my last post on DKos. But what a month it has been in local politics in the City of St. Petersburg. The last post was a rundown on our City Council elections, which will be on November 6th. Follow me below the jump, and I'll bring you up to date on what has been happening in our little corner of the world.

First let me do a little quick recap and a correction. St. Petersburg, Florida's 4th largest city, is a city of about 250,000 folks on the west coast of Florida. It's eastern boundary is Tampa Bay, so that puts us in the Tampa Bay area, the western terminus of Florida's infamous "I-4 Corridor". Our county, Pinellas, (pop approx 1 million) is the westernmost county in the corridor, Florida's swing area of the state. In 2000, Pinellas went for Al Gore by about 10,000 votes. In 2004, it went for George W Bush. So we are the swing county in the swing region in the swing state of the country. Just a bunch of swingers is what we are.

But St. Petersburg, which occupies the southernmost part of our county, is actually a fairly solid blue city. The map of legislative seats in the southern half of Pinellas County is almost solidly blue. The sole exception to this are the state House and Senate seats (1 each) which also include the beach communities on the barrier islands.

In St. Petersburg, we have a strong Mayor and City Council form of government. While the Mayor, Rick Baker, is a conservative Republican, 5 of the 8 seats on the officially nonpartisan city council are now held by Democrats. There is now one Independent, who most often votes with the Dems and but two Republicans remaining on the Council. To get to my count of Dems on the Council in my previous diary, I miscounted the Independent as a Dem.

This party lineup of 5 Dems, One Independent and two Rs is not likely to change after November 6th unless something (else) really strange happens. I say something else really strange because we have had several really strange happenings in this election cycle in St. Petersburg.

The first really strange thing was the sudden resignation and then suicide of the City Council Chairperson. This occurred on the Friday before the September 11th City Council primary elections. John Bryan was accused in family court of having improper physical contact with his his teen aged adopted daughter. He resigned his City Council seat and committed suicide the following day.

The vacancy in the Distrcit 2 Council seat was filled last Thursday when the City Council selected attorney James Kennedy, a Democrat, from among the five applicants for the seat. Again, although officially nonpartisan, the 4 Democrats on the council voted for Kennedy, while the two Republicans and the Independent voted for the lone Republican applicant. Thus, the District 2 seat was flipped to Democratic, as John Bryan had been a Republican (albeit of the moderate, not right wing Christian nut case type). Kennedy will serve out the remaining two years on John Bryan's term. And that's how 4 Dems got to be 5.

The other strange thing happened in the District 5 council race. Incumbent Jamie Bennett won his primary with 67% of the vote and advanced to the general election facing political newcomer Chris Kelly. In St. Petersburg, if more than two candidates file for a seat, a district only primary is held. The top two vote getters then advance to a city wide general election. But here's where things really got weird, as if they weren't weird enough already.

Chris Kelly dropped out of the race claiming exhaustion. It is tough to campaign in Florida in the summer time, but that was just very strange. What happened next is even stranger. A long forgotten provision of City Code declared that Kelly's name would be replaced on the ballot by the phrase "New Election". That's right, "New Election." Had the third person in the primary received 20% of the vote, her name would have gone on the ballot as a replacement for Kelly. But since she received only 14%, the city code dictated "New Election." What this means is if the voters decide not to retain Council Member Bennett in office, they can vote to hold a brand new election for this seat, starting from scratch with a primary.

The result of this is a pretty much straight up or down "throw the bum out" vote. You don't get to see this very often. We actually have a "retention" vote for judges in Florida, but nobody really knows much about them anyway. This is very unusual and it comes at an interesting time. In the state of Florida right now, we have the Republican dominated legislature busy demonizing local governments as tax and spend scoundrels, just wastefully spending away a bonanza in property taxes that had been provided by rising property values in Florida.

No matter that this very same legislature required local school boards to raise property taxes by $500 million this year. At the same time they required county and municipal governments to roll back their property tax rates and have been trying to get a "tax reform" state constitutional amendment on the January 29th Presidential Primary ballot.

This is our legislature's 3rd shot at property tax "reform" this year. They failed to accomplish it during the regular session in the spring. They thought they had something in a special session earlier this year. However, a state judge ruled that the ballot summary our legislature wrote about their proposed constitutional amendment was unconstitutionally vague and misleading. Now they are back at it again. Lord only knows what they will come up with. But through it all, to cover up their failure to provide meaningful property insurance relief, our Republican dominated state legislature has been painting local elected officials as tax and spend villains.

That brings us back to the city council race of Jamie Bennett vs "New Election". Council Member Bennett has been one of the more vocal critics of the legislators meddling with local governments ability to set their own millage rates to meet their communities needs as they see fit. The vilification of local electeds by our legislators did not seem to have a major impact on his primary. As mentioned above, Council Member Bennett got 67% of the vote in his district primary. Perhaps that kind of popularity is why no organized effort for "New Election" has emerged as of this date. Maybe the local voters like the job their local elected officials are doing. Maybe a big win for Jamie Bennett should be a message to our legislators that they are barking up the wrong tree in their so called "tax reform" efforts.

Now if they could only put this amount of energy into truly reforming property insurance in this state...

Full Disclosure: I am a paid fundraiser for Council Member Bennett's campaign, as well as for two other council candidate's campaigns. Part of the reason I have not been on these pages much lately.

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