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Fixture faces 'fresh blood' in Gulfport on Tuesday

Jack Olsen has been on the council for 10 years. Dawn Fisher says: "People are ready for a change.''


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2001

GULFPORT -- Just two days and two candidates remain in the race for Gulfport's Ward 2 City Council seat.

Jack Olsen, on the council for 10 years and angling for another two, and Dawn Fisher, a volunteer most proud of her daily work picking up litter around the city, both want to represent the city's southeastern quadrant.

On Tuesday they vie for the seat in a runoff election in a city unaccustomed to runoffs. Gulfport has held a runoff only one other time in the last 10 years, and that was two years ago, again in Ward 2, when Olsen defeated challenger Michele King.

That time Olsen, first elected to the council in 1991, was the top vote-getter heading into the runoff. This time roles are reversed, though Olsen said his different position hasn't affected his campaigning.

"I don't feel particularly pressed or pressured one way or another," he said. "I think it's going to be a tight race. My opponent is very popular."

Fisher, 67, who owns the Beach Boulevard property where the Backfin Blue Cafe is located, and Olsen, 56, who owns a home health care business, were the top two vote-getters in Gulfport's March 6 election.

Fisher secured 934 votes, or 47 percent; Olsen received 902, or 45 percent. Gulfport's city charter calls for the winning candidate to earn more than 50 percent of the votes, so a runoff will be held Tuesday.

A third contender, auto technician John W. Hamilton, 40, captured 161 votes, or 8 percent of the ballots cast in the election's first round, and will not appear on the runoff ballot.

Fisher said she has kept her campaign low-key, with no knocking on doors. She has depended on the fliers she has mailed to Gulfport voters, as well as her involvement in the community, to spread the word about where she stands.

Olsen, on the other hand, has tried to talk to as many residents as possible. In addition to knocking on doors, he also tries to place 50 to 60 phone calls each night to residents. He tells them that the number of voters who cast ballots in city elections, particularly runoffs, is so small that candidates can make a big impact by talking directly to constituents.

Gulfport candidates learn that the extra effort counts more in some voting precincts than others.

Gulfport is divided into four wards but holds citywide elections to fill its council seats. But Ward 1, which includes the Town Shores condominiums and the Pasadena Yacht & Country Club, produces a high voter turnout and can often swing an election.

At the March 6 election that led to the runoff, 895 voters turned out in Ward 1. The second-highest turnout was in Ward 2, with 365 voters. Neither number includes absentee voters.

Two years ago Olsen's challenger, King, narrowly won three wards but lost Ward 1, and Olsen's huge victory in that ward made him a five-term commissioner. He did not win Ward 2, the district he lives in and represents, and that bothers him, Olsen said.

Again on March 6, Olsen lost Ward 2 -- this time to Fisher.

"It troubled me a lot," Olsen said. "It made me feel really bad. It made me feel I hadn't done as good a job in Ward 2 as I needed to."

Some candidates have advocated single-district voting, in which each voter casts ballots only for the candidate who will represent the voter's district and for the mayor. Olsen disagrees with that idea, saying, "Our city is small enough where what happens in Ward 4 is going to affect me and interest me as much as what happens in Ward 2."

Fisher thinks the time has come for single-district voting. "It probably needs to be changed because Town Shores really dictates what's going to happen in the election," she said.

She also said she has put some additional effort into wooing the Ward 1 voters. She sent an extra mailing to that district, the city's oldest, wealthiest and most politically involved, and believes she has strong support at the Town Shores condominiums.

"People are ready for a change," Fisher said. "Jack's been in for 10 years, and he's done a lot in 10 years, but you ought to be able to do something in 10 years. I think people are just looking for a change, for some fresh blood."

Olsen said he reminds voters that change isn't always good.

"Changing horses in midstream is expensive and potentially dangerous," he said. "I don't know that anyone wants that change."

Where to vote

Registered voters in Gulfport can cast ballots from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday at the following places: Ward 1, Gulfport Recreation Center, 5730 Shore Blvd. S; Ward 2, Gulfport Presbyterian Church, 5313 27th Ave. S; Ward 3, Holy Name Catholic Church, 5800 15th Ave. S; Ward 4, Gulfport Church of the Nazarene, 1000 55th St. S.

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