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Fingers crossed in tight race

Elections officials count on voter education used in the primary to head off problems in today's vote.

The choices

Mayor
Rick Baker
Kathleen Ford

City Council

District 1
Richard Kriseman
Dennis Homol Sr.

District 2
John Bryan
Craig Patrick

District 4
Chris Eaton
Virginia Littrell

District 5
James Bennett
Robert Eschenfelder

District 6
Dwight "Chimurenga" Waller
Earnest Williams

Also: 10 proposed City Charter amendments and two land lease referendums.

By BRYAN GILMER and LEONORA LaPETER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The billboard on First Avenue S advises: "St. Pete voters: Check your chads."

Election officials are hoping the extra caution they used a month ago in the city primary will see them through today's election.

They say the public service announcement is good advice, that voters should make sure all the holes are properly punched before they drop the ballot into the box.

The maligned punch card ballots seemed to work fine last month, but voters had a maximum of two holes to punch.

This time, they will have 18: the mayor's race between Kathleen Ford and Rick Baker, five City Council races (all city voters vote in all district races), 10 proposed amendments to the city charter and two referendums about the lease of city-owned land to schools. Polls will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

"The changes we implemented for the Feb. 27 primary election were very effective and we're going to use those same procedures," said Deborah Clark, Pinellas County supervisor of elections.

Those changes include large colored signs at the voting machines reminding voters to ask for another ballot if they make a mistake.

As the candidates for city office made their last-minute campaign push Monday, City Clerk Jane Brown declined to predict how many of the city's voters will turn out.

If history is a guide, more of the city's 145,730 registered voters should go to the polls today than the 25 percent who did a month ago.

In the 1997 mayoral election, 35 percent voted, while 53 percent voted in 1993, with the hotly contested David Fischer vs. Ernest Curtsinger contest and a referendum to change to the strong-mayor form of government.

The mayoral election could be a very close, and both candidates sought an edge Monday.

Baker ran a television commercial twice locally on three broadcast stations during morning shows such as Today and Good Morning America.

The ad begins with black-and-white images of Ford as a City Council member, looking exasperated at a public meeting. The ad gives a list of phrases people have used to describe her style -- "humiliating," "nasty diatribe" and "extremely antagonistic."

Then, it portrays Baker, in color, as "a leader" who runs a "decent campaign" and is "very mayoral."

Ford's campaign staff was dismayed.

"We don't think people want negative campaigning," Ford campaign manager Terri Griner said. "(Baker has) led us to believe, and the community to believe, that's not his style, and in the end, he's come out doing that and we've not done that at all. Our advertising doesn't show any negative campaigning. It's been positive."

In her public appearances, Ford has attacked Baker several times since the primary, referring to him as a "milquetoast millionaire" and hammering his ties to Gov. Jeb Bush and the "good old boy" system.

She has refrained from such criticism in recent days.

Meanwhile, Baker, reluctant to criticize for weeks, recently has listed what he sees as the shortcomings that would make Ford a poor mayor. Public relations consultant Adam Goodman called the ad "constructive contrast."

"She's been running a negative campaign from the first moment she decided to seek office," Goodman said. "She has called Rick all sorts of names publicly. We're not calling names. When it comes down to who is best qualified to be mayor, both experience and temperament count."

Baker said his campaign has telephoned voters across the city, and he and supporters have gone door-to-door since Thursday.

Ford is also mounting a shoe-leather push, and she seems to think neighborhoods south of Central Avenue hold the key to the mayor's office. For the past few weeks, the 43-year-old City Council member and campaign workers have been going door-to-door, hitting every precinct from Central Avenue to Pinellas Point. This past weekend, Ford and her campaign team contacted 9,000 households.

Ford canvassed Monday in Child's Park and plans to visit several polling places there today, Griner said.

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