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Mayoral forums show a clash of two styles

Asked to questionKathleen Ford, for example, Rick Baker declines. Given the same chance, Ford goes after her opponent.

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Rick Baker is honing his message in the final days of the mayoral race: temperament, temperament, temperament.

Kathleen Ford, meanwhile, shows no interest in limiting her barbs, even as she softens her tone a tad. During one 60-minute debate Wednesday, she cheerfully said city administrators lie, the police chief might be a liar, Mayor David Fischer has been a flop, Bayfront Medical Center administrators are incompetent, regional water suppliers failed to adequately respond to the water shortage, and so did water regulators.

And the Tampa Bay Devil Rays? They may be nice to have around, Ford said, but they're not doing much for the economy.

"Five hundred low-wage, part-time jobs is not my idea of economic development," Ford said.

The contrasting styles were best highlighted during a WEDU-Ch. 3 debate, when the candidates had a chance to question one another. Baker paused for a moment. Then he declined the chance to ask anything of his opponent.

Ford didn't hesitate. When Baker helped Fischer beat challenger Bill Klein four years ago, she noted, African-American voters received fliers attacking Klein over some of his campaign advisers and for wanting to fire the top black administrator at City Hall.

"Can the citizens of St. Petersburg expect more race-baiting from you or your campaign in the last days of this election?" Ford asked.

Baker made no apologies and avoided a direct answer. The mailings contained nothing untrue, he said. And besides, Bill Klein this week threw his endorsement to Baker.

At the WEDU debate (to be televised at 1:30 p.m. Sunday) and at an evening Council of Neighborhood Associations debate, both candidates pointed to an election with clear choices for voters.

Baker cast himself as the even-keeled, consensus-building candidate up against a divisive force: "I know how to ask tough questions, and I know how to focus on the details. I do it in a way that makes people come together -- not pull them apart."

To the CONA crowd, he suggested voters look to those who have worked with Ford. Though she was active in her neighborhood association, three past CONA presidents have endorsed him, and in the primary he beat her comfortably in her own neighborhood precincts. Likewise, he said, all four former City Council members who served with Ford are endorsing Baker.

Ford, meanwhile, portrayed herself as the plain-spoken, detail-oriented candidate with a proven record of standing up for all the people. Baker, she said, is the "special interests" candidate with a weak grasp on the issues.

She criticized him for bringing Republican Gov. Jeb Bush down to campaign for him in a non-partisan primary. His experience with city government, she said, is limited to seeking public money for a Florida International Museum "bailout" and for the Chamber of Commerce.

As always, police Chief Goliath Davis was an issue. At the public television debate, both candidates were asked about Davis' telling the St. Petersburg Times that he did not place a Baker campaign sign in his front yard, did not know who did and did not feel comfortable removing it.

"Is he telling the truth or not?" Ford asked. "If he's not telling the truth there, can you believe him on important issues?"

Baker said as mayor he would prefer that department heads keep political signs off their lawns, but his campaign had not placed the sign on Davis' yard and he believed Davis had not either. "I don't know if somebody from someone else's organization put it there to set up a newspaper article," Baker said.

Also Wednesday, Ford picked up an endorsement from the West Central Florida Labor Council, which represents 65 local and regional unions. Gary Meredith, the council's political director, cited Baker's connections to Jeb Bush and said in a statement that Ford was more likely to "protect the interests of the common person."

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