After eight years in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office, Rick Kriseman will return to the private sector Jan. 6. A former city councilmember who also served for six years in the Florida House of Representatives, Kriseman, an attorney by profession, has been in local politics for more than two decades.
Kerry Kriseman was there, too, every step of the way. As her husband’s star ascended, she was his best friend, his champion, his confidante and his support system. Never was she mere “arm candy,” just there to smile, keep her mouth shut and make him look good. That phrase is abhorrent to her.
It’s all there in Accidental First Lady, Mrs. Kriseman’s memoir, published this week by St. Petersburg Press.
Subtitled On the Front Lines (and Behind the Scenes) of Local Politics, her book provides a rarely-seen glimpse into the mechanics of politics and the wear and tear on the family behind the elected official: The long, sleep-deprived campaigns, the endless glad-handing and fundraising, the sweaty handshakes and rubber-chicken dinners. The constant attention from the media; the good, bad and sometimes ugly interactions with citizens. Lots and lots of travel.
Before a friend suggested she write all down, “I never even wondered if people were interested,” Kriseman says. “It had not been on my radar at all. But then I thought about it – I bounced it off Rick, and a couple other people I trust, who would tell me the truth.”
She did wonder if her story would find an audience. “Is anybody going to read this? Does anybody care?” she recalls thinking.
But Kriseman was already the co-author of a splendid success drama. And a purely Florida story at that. “It was definitely a beneficial process to get my feelings on paper,” she says. “And it was a great way to look back on how everything started, without going off on tangents. I wanted to stay on message, and remember what the book was really about, and why I was writing it, and who it was there to serve.”
A St. Pete native, Kerry Nicolosi graduated from St. Petersburg High School in 1986, and the University of South Florida in 1992. She worked in TV news, and wrote and edited the internal newsletter at the then-St. Petersburg Times.
Kerry Nicolosi and Rick Kriseman were married Nov. 21, 1992.
The roller coaster began with his 2000 election to the St. Pete City Council. The road was bumpy, she recalls in Accidental First Lady, and it only got bumpier when Rick went to Tallahassee, staying for months at a time while she remained in St. Pete with their two young children.
They met numerous political heavyweights, rubbed elbows with heads of state and were introduced to rock stars. But it was rarely easy – holidays got deferred, vacations got canceled, chamber battles turned angry. Rick even broke his leg during the annual legislative softball game in 2007, necessitating a wheelchair and, in time, crutches to navigate state capitol hallways.
During his second term, when he and the family were enjoying a rare holiday trip to Colonial Williamsburg, their house in St. Pete burned down. They lost both of their beloved Labradors.
There were many more bruises – some physical, some political – on the Kriseman family timeline. He left Tallahassee, hungry for something new, after six years in the House. “It’s time to come home and focus on my family and law practice,” he said, “and figure out what is next for me in politics.”
Kerry Kriseman says she learned a little something about people every time.
And she developed a thick skin.
“I think you have to have a strong foundation personally – and as a couple, definitely a strong foundation,” she explains. “But I always had to remember why he was doing this, and that ‘politician’ is not a bad word. I learned to balance a certain protected-ness with being open and not closing people off because I was so protective of myself or my family. So it’s a gradual process.
“You kind of learn to recognize authenticity versus people who may just want to have access to your spouse.” She has, she insists, “a resilient nature.”
The most disruptive time of all was her husband’s campaign for re-election as St. Pete mayor in 2017, against former mayor Rick Baker. “It’s no secret that it was a very contentious election, at that time the most expensive in the city’s history, and so forth. That was the first time people really started asking ‘How do you deal with this?’ because they could feel it in the community. People were taking sides. It was very obvious in a lot of ways.”
For the past 13 years, Kerry Kriseman has handled public relations for Creative Clay, whose community arts program offers educational and vocational experiences for teens and adults with neuro-differences. She also freelances for several publications.
And now, she’s a published author, too.
The best part of being first lady – even an “accidental” one – has been “getting to watch the person I love the most getting to do the job that he has said has been his most favorite job ever. The people you care about, you love to see them happy and succeeding.
“And to see the city from the point of view that I’ve seen it. I’m proud of everyone who played a part, I’m proud of people in this city who love St. Pete so much, and care so much, even the people who complain, or constantly question. It’s because they love the city. You have to look at it like that.”
Whatever the future holds – and her husband hasn’t made any announcements about returning to politics – Kriseman cherishes the view she’s had from the best seat in the room.
“We’ve been able to see the growth of the city, and the breadth of how many caring, committed people that there are in this city that we may have never met,” she says.
“The biggest takeaway is just the experiences – you can’t box that, you can’t buy it. And I think that keeps us grounded. I hope we’ve come across as grounded, because we’ve never forgotten that public life is a privilege.”