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Ford's ingredients for success in uphill mayoral race

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001


Kathleen Ford can be her own worst enemy.

She picks fights with the police chief, fellow City Council members and the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. She won't compromise. She tried to avoid paying a $1,000 state filing fee that cost her much more than that in bad publicity.

Yet her campaign for mayor is very much alive.

Ford squeaked into the general election last week, edging fellow City Council member Larry Williams by 220 votes to win second place. Now all she has to do is raise more money, capitalize on her name recognition and throw a wrench into front-runner Rick Baker's formidable campaign machine.

The odds are against her.

The safe analysis is that Ford won every vote she is going to get in the primary. Voters who want to rock City Hall or lash out against downtown already back her. Voters who wanted independent thinking in a less confrontational package probably backed Williams.

Yet Ford has some things going for her.

The last three mavericks who ran for mayor and lost to David Fischer weren't on the City Council. Voters know Ford's name and her face.

Here are six ways Ford could tighten the race:

Wrap Gov. Jeb Bush around Baker's neck.

Remember, Pinellas County voted for Al Gore last November, not Bush's brother. Most black voters don't like the governor's efforts to end affirmative action or his support for vouchers.

Ford should ask Baker where he stands on both issues.

Invite Police Chief Goliath Davis to lunch and make sure television cameras are there by dessert.

Ford can't be elected mayor as long as voters think she would fire the black chief with the hometown roots on her first day on the job. She should meet with Davis at Atwater's Cafeteria on 22nd Avenue S and extend an olive branch. She should tell him her only interest is in improving the department and providing better service to residents, not in waging a personal vendetta.

Ford has nowhere to go but up in mostly black neighborhoods, where she finished in single digits last week. But she also has to convince moderate white voters she is not gunning for Davis.

If Davis fails to show up, even better. Leave an empty chair for him and smile as the cameras roll.

Go after women voters.

This is a non-partisan race, but Democratic women are searching for an excuse not to vote for Baker. Give them one.

It's been more than 15 years since St. Petersburg elected a woman as mayor. Ford should not let Baker be the only one talking about education and safe neighborhoods, issues that particularly appeal to women.

The Bayfront Medical Center controversy might provide another opening. Ford led the fight to make sure Catholic directives didn't prevent women from getting abortions there. She should remind voters of that -- and of Baker's suggestion that he might sell the city-owned land under the hospital for the right price.

Pitch a big idea that is easy to explain.

Ford has talked about improving St. Petersburg's infrastructure, but most people can't pronounce "infrastructure."

How about reclaimed water for everyone?

Every resident with a high water bill and a brown lawn would listen. It would be expensive and tricky to finance. It might be impossible to deliver, but it would be popular in a campaign.

Or how about a new main library and more books?

At a recent forum, every other candidate talked vaguely of how much they love libraries. Ford was the only one who pointed out shortcomings with the city's book collection.

Spend 75 percent of the campaign south of Central Avenue.

Ford can't win without Williams' voters in Pinellas Point. Baker will work hard to convince those voters he and Williams aren't that different. It's up to Ford to go to Pinellas Point and convince voters she will deliver ball fields and services as mayor like Williams has as a council member.

Be nice.

This could be the toughest one for Ford, but it is the most important. She should throw around fewer numbers at campaign forums and more smiles.

Remember: Voters want to like the person they're backing for mayor or governor or president. The mad-as-hell candidate almost never wins.

* * *

COMING WEDNESDAY: How Rick Baker can keep his lead.

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