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Candidates turn more aggressive

Top fundraiser Rick Baker is the target of many comments, and he responds to some.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- With less than two weeks before the Feb. 27 mayoral primary, candidates at a Thursday night forum dropped the political decorum of previous debates and took an aggressive approach.

"If I'm elected, I'll be the first mayor in at least 25 years who didn't live in Snell Isle or the Old Northeast," candidate Karl Nurse told the crowd of 100 people at Bethel Community Baptist Church on 16th Street S.

Nurse, who lives in the Old Southeast, drew applause for his remarks, directed at candidate Rick Baker, who lives in the Old Northeast.

Candidate Ronnie Beck continued the theme.

"I do not belong to the (St. Petersburg) Yacht Club," said Beck, who said the club's wealthy members traditionally have held power and used it to direct city resources toward downtown.

Baker, who set a new record for mayoral fundraising with $105,000 by the end of January, was the target of most of the darts.

Baker, endorsed Wednesday by Mayor David Fischer and two former mayors, did not hit back. But he did respond to some of the criticism.

For example, he said he was "not ashamed of" the appearance of Gov. Jeb Bush at a Baker fundraiser in January.

Candidate Omali Yeshitela, one of those who needled Baker about the governor's visit, also questioned Baker for citing his involvement with the YMCA Neighbor-to-Neighbor program. The effort provides dinner, Christmas trees and toys each year to poor families, many in the mostly black neighborhood where the forum was held.

"I think it's good to give away Christmas baskets and things like that, but I think we need other things more, like home ownership," Yeshitela said, drawing applause.

Baker later responded:

"It's true that delivering Christmas trees and baskets to over 460 families at Christmas doesn't solve all the problems, but it does give you perspective," he said, talking of needs he saw in several neighborhoods he walked through.

As has been his practice, Baker focused on his four-point plan of strengthening neighborhoods, schools and public safety, and providing economic opportunity for all.

All in all, it was Yeshitela, chairman of the African People's Socialist Party, who got the most applause Thursday. He founded the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, which hosted the forum and seemed to tailor some of the questions to his platform.

Yeshitela has preached revolution in the past. On the campaign trail, however, he has relied on mainstream themes.

He joked that all his opponents now seem to share his long-held economic equality views and are "campaigning to see who can be the best Omali Yeshitela."

"I'm him -- so I have the most experience at that," he said.

Nurse used that opportunity to respond:

"I'm not Omali Yeshitela -- I'm neither a socialist nor a revolutionary. I'm just a businessman and a neighborhood activist."

His remarks met with virtual silence.

Later, Nurse told the crowd, "You're going to have two choices at the (general election), so you need to be sure there's someone there who would be a good mayor -- and who could win."

In the Feb. 27 primary, voters will select the two candidates who will compete in the general election on March 27.

City Council Chairman Larry Williams and council member Kathleen Ford, both mayoral candidates, were out of the line of fire Thursday, at least from their opponents. They were at a council meeting at City Hall.

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