Winners promise new watchword: civility
By STEPHEN HEGARTY
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- The city's new mayor, Rick Baker, will have a lot of new faces to work with on City Council, as well as pledges to end the squabbles that have characterized council meetings in recent years.
"It would appear that we have this opportunity to start anew, to start afresh," said Virginia Littrell, who won the District 4 race in the only truly close contest of the night.
Three of the night's five races -- those in District 1, 5 and 6 -- were hardly contests at all.
The two council members recently appointed to finish unexpired terms easily won the right to keep their seats, and two other candidates joined Littrell as the newest council members.
Littrell, 50, edged out opponent Chris Eaton by just 618 votes. She finished behind Eaton in the primary, but her campaign as the candidate of experience won out over Eaton's promise of a fresh perspective.
Littrell, whose grandfather Robert Carroll Purvis was elected to the council in 1924, was ecstatic Tuesday as she and supporters gathered at the Grand Finale restaurant near downtown.
"Is this really real?" she asked. "I can't believe it.
"We both campaigned hard. He, of course, had a substantial lead on me, 21/2 months, but perhaps our message prevailed that experience does count."
Littrell, chairwoman of the city's Planning Commission and Historic Preservation Commission, had promised to put her civic experience to work on City Council.
She can't wait to get to work.
"I'm excited. I'm also anxious. I feel as though I can sleep for a week, but I wish we had a council meeting tomorrow," said Littrell, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, a group that lobbies the Legislature on behalf of consumers.
Eaton began the race against Littrell with a call for a return to civility in the City Council. But as he lost by just a couple of percentage points, his parting shot was a dig at Littrell and at the St. Petersburg Times, which endorsed her.
"The Times," he said, "has delivered to the city the new Kathleen Ford. I'm quite shocked. I feel bad for small businesses."
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In other council races:
Richard D. Kriseman, an accident attorney appointed to the council in December, easily beat wastewater plant mechanic Dennis Homol Sr., taking 75 percent of the vote. Kriseman said even he was surprised by the large number of votes he got.
Kriseman, 38, who lives in Lake Pasadena and ran for City Council in 1999 and lost, said his victory shows that voters think he has done a good job during his short time on City Council.
Sounding the note of a new and harmonious City Council, Kriseman said he and his colleagues must work together with the mayor to accomplish anything.
"I'm certainly hoping that No. 1, we have a very cohesive council as far as being civil with each other and with the staff," Kriseman said Tuesday night. "And I think we're going to start addressing some of the problems we've got in the city as far as economic development and spreading it throughout the city."
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Earnest Williams took 78 percent of the vote and easily defeated Dwight "Chimurenga" Waller. Williams, who was appointed to the council seat last fall when Frank Peterman was elected to the Florida House, earned the right to a four-year term.
The insurance executive trounced his opponents in a five-way race last month, and didn't let up in the general election.
"It's very humbling to get the support that we've got," said Williams, while heading to Big Tim's Bar B Q from City Hall for a celebration soon after 64 of the 114 precincts had been counted.
"I've been out working in this community for a long time and I think people appreciate that."
Once Williams, 53, decided to run for the District 6 seat, he generated considerable support, including voters and campaign contributors who live outside of the district.
Both Williams and Waller talked during the campaign of the need for economic development south of Central Avenue.
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Lawn service owner James Bennett captured 71 percent of the vote to defeat local attorney Rob Eschenfelder. Bennett, 48, fills the remaining two years in council Chairman Larry Williams' term. Williams resigned to run for mayor but lost in the primary.
As election results flashed on the television screen at this victory party at Spartan's Restaurant and Pizza, it quickly became clear Tuesday that Bennett would win by a good margin. When the race appeared won, champagne was poured into plastic cups and the crowd erupted into cheers of "He's a jolly good fellow."
"I felt very confident going in," Bennett said. "We ran a very good campaign. The people who are with me, they are huge, and they made all the difference in the world."
Bennett congratulated Eschenfelder on running an issues-oriented campaign, and said he hopes his opponent remains active in politics. Both men ran in part on the notion the city should support redevelopment and economic development in the city's poorest neighborhoods.
Eschenfelder, an assistant Manatee County attorney and former assistant attorney for the city of St. Petersburg, was teaching a business law class at St. Petersburg Junior College as the election results rolled in.
Eschenfelder said he would "definitely continue to be involved in everything I've been doing ... I wish him the best of luck."
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John Bryan's campaign themes of reducing taxes and bringing in jobs earned him 57 percent of the vote and a solid victory over Craig Patrick.
A commercial property manager, Bryan, 50, said his first task would be "to bring back respect and credibility to the council," a subject several candidates raised during the campaign.
Bryan also predicted the council would get along well with the new mayor.
"I think it will be a good relationship with Rick Baker," Bryan said.
Patrick is a public relations executive who was making his first bid for public office. Despite losing, he remained upbeat.
"I'm certainly not down. I'm disappointed, but I'm fired up as ever to make a positive difference in the community in which I live," said Patrick, who is getting married April 21. He said he would remain involved in public affairs.
Bryan credited the victory to his campaign team's performance and a consistently delivered message: "Less taxes in general played extremely well," he said. "Trying to control growth in taxes is real important to St. Petersburg residents, and more jobs resonates with the citizens in the Challenge area."
- Staff writers Wes Allison, Lennie Bennett, Leonora LaPeter, Waveney Ann Moore, Jounice L. Nealy and Jon Wilson contributed to this report.
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