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A low voter turnout cuts the field of nine

Primary winners reflect longstanding divisions in St. Petersburg politics.


© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- St. Petersburg's new mayor will be either Rick Baker, who would tune up the city government and drive it another four years, or Kathleen Ford, who says it should be traded in for a new model.

Baker, who raised a record-breaking $127,201 by last week, dominated the field of nine candidates, winning 25 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary.

Although he helped run Mayor David Fischer's campaigns and was well-known in business circles, Baker worked hard to introduce himself through cable television and direct mailings.

"We had to buy media to get the exposure; that's what it took," said Baker, more thoughtful than jubilant as he met with supporters Tuesday night at Saffron's restaurant. "We focused on the issues, on our plan. We didn't get side-tracked. We accomplished our goals in two months. Isn't that what you'd like a mayor to do?"

Ford, who raised $34,270, edged fellow City Council member Larry Williams by 219 votes to make it into the March 27 general election.

Williams and candidates Omali Yeshitela and Karl Nurse all thought they had a good shot to get into the general election, but they went home disappointed.

State law required Williams to resign his council seat to run for mayor, so he will be out of a government job after the March 27 general election.

"I wish I'd gotten 220 more votes," Williams said Tuesday night at Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill in St. Petersburg. "I would have liked to have won or at least been in the dance."

Williams said he was headed home to eat more chicken wings and talk to his family. He planned on driving to Central Florida today to visit the grave of his father, who died unexpectedly about a month ago.

"We'll take tomorrow when tomorrow comes," Williams said.

Nurse spent the evening at his home in the Old Southeast, where supporters watched one of three televisions monitoring city election returns.

When he learned about two-thirds of the votes had been counted, Nurse closed his cellular phone and gathered everyone around him.

"We'll probably narrow that gap, but we won't make it," he said. "Let me just thank everybody. I worked as hard as I could."

Nurse spent about $40,000 of his personal funds on the campaign.

When he learned that Baker and Ford had won, he said, "Those were two choices I was hoping not to have."

When asked if he would endorse either candidate, he said, "Let me sleep on it."

A few blocks away, where Omali Yeshitela and supporters were gathering at the Masonic Lodge on 18th Avenue S, Yeshitela was slinging an insult in Nurse's direction. He called Nurse a "racist land speculator" and said he was glad that he did not advance.

Nurse has bought and restored six homes in the Old Southeast, but Yeshitela believes Nurse is helping push black residents out of the neighborhood.

Told of the comment, Nurse sighed and said his neighborhood remains as diverse now as when he moved in.

In his first campaign, Yeshitela said he thought he drew significant support, especially since he is widely perceived as radical. He chairs the African People's Socialist Party.

Just before 10 p.m., Yeshitela conceded defeat and addressed the crowd at the joint party with his brother, Dwight Chimurenga Waller, candidate for City Council District 6.

"We've just begun this struggle," he said. "It's hardly over. You know we're running against Curtsinger again."

That was an apparent comparison of Ford to Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger, the fiery, fired police chief and anti-establishment candidate who ran against Fischer in the hotly contested 1993 mayoral race. Many African-Americans thought Curtsinger's police department was heavy-handed with black St. Petersburg residents.

Ford once asked for FBI protection from Yeshitela, though he never threatened her.

At Perch restaurant downtown on Central Avenue, Ford said her victory shows money doesn't rule every political contest, and she credited her hard-working grass-roots volunteers.

"There's a clear difference between us," she said, when asked about the contest between her and Baker. "It's a true neighborhood activist versus a pretender."

Amid the din of dozens of supporters munching brushetta and chocolate, she had little interest in dwelling on Baker.

"We just want to talk about what we want to do for the city of St. Petersburg," she said.

Baker spent much of Tuesday night collecting his thoughts alone in a booth or huddling with his campaign strategists as hundreds of his supporters munched on Caribbean meatballs.

Although many of his supporters said they like his chances in a race against Ford, Baker was looking down the road.

"We've spent all our money," he said. "There's nothing left. We're starting over tomorrow."

- Times staff writers Jounice L. Nealy, Lennie Bennett and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

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