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Black vote reflects uneasiness with Uhurus

By LEONORA LaPETER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- As election returns rolled in Tuesday, Omali Yeshitela declared "Victory is ours."

But a closer look at how St. Petersburg voted shows that Yeshitela and his brother have a long way to go before they can lay claim to a majority of the city's African-American vote.

Although Yeshitela, chairman of the African People's Socialist Party, did win a number of precincts in mostly black neighborhoods south of Central Avenue, his best showing was 45 percent in a precinct bisected by 22nd Avenue S.

His brother, Dwight "Chimurenga" Waller, fared much worse in his race for City Council. Though Waller, national president of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, qualified for the March 27 general election, he was trounced in Tuesday's vote by council member Earnest Williams. Williams won by a strong majority in all 12 precincts and by nearly 3 to 1 in the district that is home to the Uhuru House on 18th Avenue S.

Some said Tuesday's primary may be as much about the rejection of the Uhuru movement in the African-American community as it is about Yeshitela's lack of success in getting large numbers of voters.

"I honestly think if it was him without the movement behind him I feel he would have won hands down," said Mike Atwater, an owner of Atwater's Cafeteria at 895 22nd Ave. S. "Being that he's not a change-coat, the man can't separate himself from his powerful movement. A lot of people get frightened by what he believes in and his strong voice and the principles he stands behind."

But others said Yeshitela changed his image to attract voters citywide, and blacks in District 6 weren't fooled by it.

"You just don't put on a new face in two months for an election," said Maria Scruggs-Weston, a black mayoral candidate who came in second in many of the districts Yeshitela won. "He's been an advocate for social justice and with that he's spewed some pretty harsh things. People don't forget that easily. They may forgive you but they don't forget."

Several prominent African-Americans said Yeshitela is an important force in the black community, but he's still too extreme, too polarizing.

His harsh words upon his loss Tuesday night suggested he has not really changed. Despite a campaign calling for a unified St. Petersburg, Yeshitela called mayoral candidate Karl Nurse a "racist land speculator."

On Wednesday, Nurse said Yeshitela's comment was "so far from the truth, I don't even know how to respond." He said he has bought five houses in the Old Southeast, selling two of them to black first-time home buyers. He said he renovated the houses to improve the community and did not make any money on it.

Yeshitela argued that his statement was no more inflammatory than Nurse telling black church-goers they should vote for him because there was no way Yeshitela would win the election. "Those are fighting words," Yeshitela said.

Yeshitela said he's still the same person he's always been and his candidacy was responsible for making economic development a major issue in the nine-way race for mayor. He said he struggled to define himself during the election, because he wanted to be a responsible leader for the city as a whole.

Lou Brown, co-chairman of Yeshitela's campaign, said the 3,905 votes Yeshitela received demonstrates that the black community has moved forward in politics. Yeshitela won 1,021 votes north of Central Avenue, including 31 votes in the Snell Isle precinct. He received 2,792 votes south of Central Avenue.

"I think one year ago if you said he ran for mayor and got 10 percent, you might have been laughed out of town," said Brown, also the chairman of the Coalition of African-American Leadership.

Yeshitela's supporters evidently aren't always honest about their support. There are those, apparently, who pretend to support him but don't vote for him and those who support him but are afraid to say they do.

As a longtime St. Petersburg resident, the Rev. M. Mason Walker, who voted for Rick Baker in the mayor's race, thinks Yeshitela has more support than was reflected at the polls.

"In my opinion, many of the black people are afraid to publicly express themselves for fear of retribution," said Walker, pastor of the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Tampa. "And that's a legitimate fear."

Atwater sees it differently.

"A lot of past history causes a lot of people to smile in Omali's face and say they'll vote for him, but it's evident that behind the polls, they don't," said Atwater, who voted for Yeshitela in the primary and now supports Baker.

Yeshitela said Tuesday's election is not about the rejection of the Uhuru movement. It's about starting something that he hopes to finish four years from now when he runs for mayor.

"The rejection of the Uhuru movement certainly came four or five years ago when every cop in the city and the bay area was attacking this building and when I was being pepper-sprayed," Yeshitela said, referring to the 1996 disturbances after the shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer. "I think if anything many folk who constitute our base could not vote (because of felony convictions). We did go up against this."

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