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Former foes shun Baker, Ford

The absence of endorsements from losers of the primary shows scant enthusiasm for the winners.

By LEONORA LaPETER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- More than two weeks have passed since the mayoral primary weeded out seven candidates and left two: Kathleen Ford and Rick Baker.

But what is striking about this race is that the major losing candidates are either undecided or unwilling to toss their support to the pair who remain.

"It's very unusual -- typically within 48 hours people endorse," said Karl Nurse, who came in fifth with 5,498 votes in the Feb. 27 primary. "When you endorse, you ought to feel enthusiasm. If I were to endorse, I would feel some sense of responsibility, and since I don't feel enthusiasm, and I don't want to take responsibility for who to elect, I don't see myself endorsing anybody."

Nurse is not alone. Omali Yeshitela, Maria Scruggs-Weston and Larry Williams expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the remaining candidates, and some said there is a chance they won't endorse Ford or Baker.

"It's hard to be pretty enthusiastic over what the choices are," said Williams, who plans to meet with Ford and Baker this week and will make a decision after that. He received 7,664 votes, losing the second-place slot to Ford by 220 votes. He requested a partial hand recount, but the deadline has now passed for him to pursue any other challenge.

To be sure, both mayoral contenders have picked up their share of endorsements. Ford picked up her latest on Wednesday, receiving a 95 percent approval rating from the union that represents 1,500 blue-collar workers from the Sanitation and Public Utilities departments, as well as administrative employees from the Parks and Leisure, Police and Building departments and city administration.

The endorsement was given on the City Hall steps, where a racially mixed crowd of about 45 city employees and Ford workers cheered and denounced the St. Petersburg Times for writing stories and raising questions about Ford's stormy relationship with police Chief Goliath Davis III.

The endorsement is quite a coup for Ford, who has been criticized for her personal style of questioning city employees in public meetings -- sometimes to the point of humiliation. The Service Employees International Union AFL-CIO CLC Firemen and Oilers Local 1220 worked for Mayor David Fischer in the past two elections.

"I'm a blue-collar employee," said Frederick D. Winters, president of the union and a sanitation truck driver who first started with the city in 1965. "She's never called me on the carpet. That's management, and I think management should answer to her because they're really running amok in City Hall."

Ford, 43, an attorney and a City Council member of the past four years, said she was "delighted" that the union had endorsed her.

"It's heartwarming," she said. "These are the folks doing the day-in, day-out work to protect the citizens of St. Petersburg."

Baker, 44, an attorney, said he was working hard to reach out to all segments of the community and he still held hope that some former mayoral candidates might come out with endorsements before the election.

"I think when you run a hard campaign and people hope to be in the runoff, I think it takes time to decide what you want to do," Baker said. "We still have two weeks before the election. I suspect one or more of them may come forward, but I don't know."

When told Wednesday that many of the candidates had declined to endorse either candidate, Ford said: "Pat Bailey (who received 292 votes in the primary) endorsed me, and Ronnie Beck isn't endorsing anybody."

Asked to comment on the fact that many of the former mayoral candidates seemed to have little enthusiasm for either Ford or Baker, she said, "That's fine."

Maria Scruggs-Weston isn't surprised by the former candidates' uniform lack of overwhelming support for Baker or Ford.

"If the candidates would have taken a straw poll among themselves, I don't think Kathleen Ford or Rick Baker would have made it out," said Scruggs-Weston, who came in sixth with 1,372 votes in the primary.

Scruggs-Weston said she was leaning toward not endorsing either candidate, but she must still decide whom to vote for.

"I don't have strong feelings about either one, and the strong feelings I have are not positive ones," Scruggs-Weston said. "I just think the issue with Rick: nice guy but the connection to the Republican Party and the money put into the campaign, it just overrides. It was just the opposite of what everybody stood for.

"With Kathleen, she's tenacious, brilliant, but her people skills are sub-zero. Unfortunately, the mayor has to represent 250,000 people, and that's not her strength."

Nurse pointed out that many of the candidates who lost -- Williams, Beck, Scruggs-Weston and himself -- represented the philosophical middle ground and received about 42 percent of the vote.

"And so none of us are overwhelmingly comfortable with choosing one end or the other, and we will have to at some point," Nurse said.

Yeshitela, 59, who came in fifth with 3,905 votes, is so ambivalent about the candidates at this point that he even went so far as to tell members of a forum audience "that may mean not voting for either candidate, but placing your hopes on the City Council races."

On Wednesday, Yeshitela said he was meeting with one of the candidates, whom he declined to name. But he wasn't hopeful that would sway him to endorse one candidate or another. He said his comments at the forum sponsored by the Coalition of African-American Leadership weren't meant to encourage people not to vote at all.

"I'm not advocating anything," he said. "I'm saying no one should vote for either candidate out of fear or desperation. If you're not satisfied with the answers they give, it would be foolish to go out and vote for them as the lesser of two evils. If you do that, politicians never have to respond to the real interests of people."

Candidate endorsements

Each candidate has received endorsements from organized labor, interest groups and politicians, but neither has been able to secure the blessing of one of the major candidates defeated in last month's mayoral primary.

Supporting Rick Baker

Mayor David Fischer and former mayors Bob Ulrich, Corinne Freeman, Don Jones, Dr. Edward L. Cole Jr. and Randy Wedding. Three former presidents of the Council of Neighborhood Associations: Connie Kone, Karen Mullins and Jon Clarke. The Suncoast Hispanic Association, the St. Petersburg Association of Realtors and the local firefighters union.

Supporting Kathleen Ford

Service Employees International Union AFL-CIO CLC Firemen and Oilers Local 1220, Suncoast Sierra Club, the Florida National Organization for Women Political Action Committee and the Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association.

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