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City's mayoral drama replays a familiar act

Primary winners reflect longstanding divisions in St. Petersburg politics

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Voters have seen this mayor's race before.

Three times, in fact.

Rick Baker, who finished first in Tuesday's primary, plays outgoing Mayor David Fischer. He is the measured, establishment candidate with the big endorsements, including Fischer's.

Kathleen Ford, the City Council member who finished second, plays Bill Klein, Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger and Dennis McDonald, all at once. She is the outspoken challenger who cultivates the image of a maverick who will say what others won't.

Ford brushed aside those comparisons at her election-night celebration, and for good reason. Klein, Curtsinger and McDonald all lost.

"It's a new day for the city of St. Petersburg," she said.

But the scenery looks awfully familiar.

Baker, the former chairman of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, makes no apologies for his interest in downtown. Ford will align herself with neighborhood activists in the Tyrone area and elsewhere who are suspicious of anything to do with downtown.

* * *

Baker's style is smooth and non-confrontational. Ford's approach is often abrasive and uncompromising, although she has softened her tone on the campaign trail.

Perhaps most importantly in this election, Baker supports police Chief Goliath Davis. Ford is the chief's harshest critic.

On Tuesday, Baker performed as well as expected. He finished a solid first with 25 percent of the vote. Ford finished second with 21.4 percent of the vote, narrowly edging fellow City Council member Larry Williams.

It appears her core supporters were unswayed by the revelation that she first claimed paying a $1,000 state filing fee would cause an undue burden and that she didn't know she could pay it from campaign money. She paid the fee out of her campaign -- then loaned herself $5,000 from her personal accounts.

The surprises in the primary were Williams' strong finish -- and the relatively poor showings by two other high-profile candidates. Karl Nurse, the former Planning Commission chairman, finished fourth with less than 15 percent of the vote. Social activist Omali Yeshitela finished fifth with just 10.6 percent of the vote.

That just goes to show that neither solid performances at campaign forums nor stirring oratory add up to votes.

How Baker and Ford divide the support of those other three candidates will determine who becomes the next mayor. Baker appears to be better-positioned.

He fared better in the primary than Fischer did in his last two primaries, so he starts with a larger base.

Fischer, who narrowly won his primary against Curtsinger eight years ago and finished second in the primary to Klein four years ago, won both general elections with considerable help from black voters.

Baker already has some support in predominantly black neighborhoods. He did not appear to be irreparably harmed Tuesday by his association with Gov. Jeb Bush. The governor attended a fundraiser for Baker in January and has angered black voters for replacing affirmative action in state contracting and university admissions.

"He's going to be just like my boy -- Mayor Fischer," said Lizzie Smith, a 36-year-old state worker, after voting for Baker at the Frank Pierce Recreation Center on Seventh Street S.

Ford has not built any bridges to black voters with her constant criticism of the Police Department and of the chief, who is black. A nod by Yeshitela toward Baker would send even more voters toward Baker.

Williams is no Ford fan, and he takes credit as City Council chairman for restoring some decorum at council meetings that Ford often disrupted. But he also criticized Baker's fundraising prowess. An endorsement from Williams could bring considerable help to either candidate in his base of Pinellas Point.

While Ford needs to make inroads among black voters, Baker will have to court neighborhood activists who are naturally suspicious of downtown and anyone with such support from business leaders. Baker appeared to do nearly as well as Ford on Tuesday in the western St. Petersburg neighborhoods, but he will have to beef that up by next month.

Ford is their natural ally.

"She's a rabble-rouser, and St. Petersburg needs someone who doesn't necessarily toe the line and is willing to ask tough questions," said Elaine Cloud Goller, 40-year-old research analyst from the Tyrone area in west St. Petersburg.

Baker, who raised nearly four times as much campaign cash as Ford, and Ford also are going to have to quickly raise some more cash. Both candidates are basically broke.

The St. Petersburg mayor's race no longer can be won on yard signs alone.

- Times staff writer Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

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