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Ford, Davis, and the search for a standard

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2001


Kathleen Ford is white, Go Davis is black, and their combat is inevitably portrayed in racial terms.

This is simple-minded. It fails to explain their sour chemistry.

They can't stand each other because they're too much alike.

They delight in strutting their arrogance and ticking off people.

Ford, running for mayor of St. Petersburg, earned her reputation as a member of the City Council, where she usually said the first thing that struck her, regardless of how it struck anybody else.

Her reputation is so pervasive that she owned up to it during Friday's Suncoast Tiger Bay debate when she said that she's trying to straighten up.

Davis, the city's chief of police, has such a fine-tuned sense of public relations that he once castigated the council for bothering to listen to a citizen. He cut loose on a patrol officer who dared during roll call to question his firing of another cop. He can't seem to turn around without getting caught up in another lawsuit from a cop howling discrimination.

Last week, Davis wrote a new chapter in his record for in-your-faceness. He attacked Ford after another campaign debate Tuesday night.

Ford had complained during her speech that the Police Department isn't up to its designated staffing levels. It's an old bone with her, one she regularly picks.

Davis was second in line when the audience was invited to ask questions. He took to the microphone and essentially called Ford a liar.

It doesn't matter who's right and who's wrong. What matters is that police chiefs shouldn't go around town politicking. What matters here is that the chief should be judged by the same yardstick that is applied to Ford.

If Ford is wrong to make Davis' performance an issue, as her opponent, lawyer Rick Baker, says, then it's also wrong for Davis to play partisan games.

He wanted people to think he wasn't. He showed up at the debate out of uniform -- as if people didn't know who he was, particularly people attending the event, sponsored by St. Petersburg's Coalition of African American Leadership.

Davis' appearance is even more important because it was a clear signal, in case anybody had any doubt, of who he isn't voting for. That will matter big time in St. Petersburg's black neighborhoods. A St. Petersburg Times poll published Friday shows the race between Ford and Baker so neck-and-neck that black voters could make all the difference.

So Davis wasn't showing up as some Joe Doe who happens to moonlight as police chief. When you're police chief, you're never off duty.

Here's how a police chief who knew how to conduct himself would have behaved:

Davis would have stayed away from the debate. Ford would have made her claims. Reporters would have called the Police Department the next day to seek a response on staffing levels. They would have asked for his comments.

A chief who didn't want to stir the pot would have declined to comment. He'd have had his flack issue a press release that simply stated the staffing statistics.

The chief would have defended himself -- which is certainly his right. He would have made his point. He would have kept his distance.

My point is not complicated: What's good for Ford is good for Davis.

If she is a destructive force in the city, as her critics say she is, then he's no candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The reverse is also true. If Davis can get away with his theatrics, then Ford can get away with hers.

Nothing more. Nothing less. That's what we mean when we talk about everybody being equal.

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