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Goo still runs thick in vein of discontent

By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2001


The results of the St. Petersburg mayoral primary remind me of an episode involving a guy I went to college with.

Once, as a performance art project, this guy printed fliers inviting people to appear at an appointed time and throw all manner of putrid substances at him while he cowered behind a thick piece of clear plastic.

Well, it went off as you would imagine, with frat boys heaving unspeakable goo at this skinny little man. He got exactly what he asked for. It was a melee. Made for interesting photos.

In the end, the great goo heave said more about the people tossing garbage than it did the guy behind the plastic.

Which is an apt take on Kathleen Ford's primary showing. The results say more about voters than the candidate.

The voting patterns predate the political lives of all the candidates. Ford got the angry vote, which has hung together since the late 1980s. Although the issues have differed and the intensity has grown and faded, it is fascinating that there is a geographic commonality.

Tom Oberhofer, an Eckerd College economics professor and longtime city politics observer, said it's obviously a vote of anger, since Ford has done little as a City Council member to engender a positive following.

It was disappointing, he said, that she took a load of votes in the same precincts in which previous mayoral candidates Bill Klein, Ernest Curtsinger and Dennis McDonald ran strong.

"She just tapped into a vein of discontent, obvious when you consider the alternatives that were available," Oberhofer said.

He was talking about mayoral candidates Larry Williams and Karl Nurse, whom he thinks would have given voters in western and northern precincts a choice if they were turned off by the downtown, big-money, friend-of-the-governor reputation -- deserved or not -- of front-runner Rick Baker.

Which raises a question: What are those voters so mad about? Why are they still heaving goo?

I asked Randy Wedding, who was mayor in the 1970s and has been associated with previous mayoral campaigns that drew on the angry constituency.

"I think Kathleen is her own explanation," said Wedding, who lives in the Tyrone area. "You've watched her operate . . . Kathleen has a great capacity for cross-examination, but she doesn't persuade the jury to her point of view. Politics is the art of the possible, and it's not part of her tool bag."

Finding the source of that flame, and fixing the problems that fan it, is something the new mayor must do. It will not be easy. Dave Fischer, the outgoing mayor, tried for 10 years, with limited success.

Out west in Jungle Terrace, where voters went for Ford, the president of the civic association, Steve Plice, offers this explanation: His neighbors are tired of living with heavy Tyrone traffic and paying property taxes with a perceived small return.

"I think when you talk to people on this side of town, generally their feeling is that the high quality of life they bought into is gone," Plice said.

Also a draw, he said, is Ford's unhappiness with the police department. Paradoxically, he said, people in his area do not see crime as a problem but want greater protection.

When you realize the department is headed by an African-American man whom Ford has criticized, it becomes a loaded issue for a city that has wrestled with racial questions.

Interesting thoughts that the new mayor would be wise to explore.

A postscript: You might be wondering what happened to Goo Man. I heard he was kicked out of college for spending his student aid money to start a rock 'n' roll band. We know Ford can sing Kumbaya. She did so for Times columnist Howard Troxler. Not bad pipes.

Do you think she can do Louie, Louie?

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