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By PHILIP GAILEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001
Nine candidates, most of them credible, are running for mayor of St. Petersburg in the Feb. 27 primary election. With so many wild cards in the deck, anything could happen. Two candidates stand out in this crowded field -- St. Petersburg lawyer and civic leader Rick Baker and neighborhood activist Karl Nurse. Baker is this newspaper's choice (see editorial on opposite page), but either Baker or Nurse would likely move the city forward. But there's also a good chance that Kathleen Ford could make the runoff, and if that happens, the stakes in this election would increase dramatically.
When Ford won her City Council seat four years ago, she was an unknown. Even many of her supporters in that race have been appalled by her conduct on the council and now express regret that they helped put her in office. In the race for mayor, voters cannot plead ignorance. Ford may be the best-known candidate on the ballot. You can be sure of one thing: The mayor's office would only magnify the traits that have made her a source of needless turmoil and discord in city government for the past four years.
Ford would likely be as divisive, contentious and arrogant as mayor as she has been as a member of the City Council -- maybe even more so. Ford has made the council chamber a public whipping post for city employees, the police chief and anyone else who gets in her way. She treats them with disdain, whether expressed in words or in her body language. Ford is the main reason most City Council candidates are running on a pledge to restore civility in council proceedings.
Despite her record, Ford has the support of some prominent citizens, including former Florida House Speaker Peter Rudy Wallace, who sounds a little defensive when explaining how he wound up in her camp. Wallace went to high school with Ford's husband and has other personal connections. Other Ford supporters explain their choice by saying they believe City Hall needs a mayor to shake things up. There is a difference, however, between shaking things up and tearing the city apart.
Baker is being tagged by his opponents as the candidate of big business, big money and Gov. Jeb Bush, who came to St. Petersburg to speak at a Baker fundraiser. That may be true, but Baker, a former Chamber of Commerce president and long-time community leader, also offers an impressive track record of involvement in some of this city's poorest neighborhoods and a broader, better-defined vision for this city than any of his opponents. Baker is a decent, compassionate man who has demonstrated that he cares about his adopted city (he is a native of Chicago). Baker would not be a stranger in black churches or inner-city neighborhoods. He has been involved in the city's efforts to revitalize those neighborhoods for years, and there can be no question that he would be the mayor of all the people.
Many, if not most, African-American voters will be attracted, understandably so, to the candidacy of Omali Yeshitela, the Uhuru leader whose followers are blamed for fomenting the riots that swept parts of the city a few years ago after a white police officer fatally shot a black teenager during a traffic stop. Since then, Yeshitela has emerged as a legitimate voice expressing the hopes and fears of the city's black community, and as a candidate for mayor, he has impressed even some of his critics with his message of biracial cooperation and economic development. Unfortunately, Yeshitela has not reconciled his campaign message with the "revolutionary, socialist" rant still on the Uhuru Web site -- such nonsense as the unconditional release of all black prisoners and an end to all taxes on black people.
In a runoff against Ford, either Baker or Nurse, a small business owner and former Planning Commission chairman, could expect to win most of the city's black vote, which in past elections has been loyal to Mayor David Fischer, who, along with two other former mayors, has endorsed Baker. That might help either overcome the advantage that Ford would have with voters who share her mistrust of Goliath Davis, the city's controversial black police chief.
It's hard to predict how the primary vote will break. With this many candidates, there is the potential for a surprise. Is council member Larry Williams being underestimated? Maybe. Could Yeshitela or Ronnie Beck wind up in a runoff? It's possible. It would be a mistake to try to handicap this contest by conventional standards. The only thing that is clear is that the stakes in this election could not be greater. The outcome could decide whether St. Petersburg moves forward in race relations, economic development and water policy, or whether it lurches backward toward a past no one should want to revisit.
It's up to the voters.