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Fischer goes out a quiet winner

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


photo
[AP photo]
Mayor David Fischer packs a few personal items from his office on Friday. After the longest term for a mayor in St. Petersburg's 109-year history, he leaves office today with high ratings.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Face it, St. Petersburg. The mayor you've repeatedly elected is one of the few politicians who make Al Gore look charismatic by comparison.

But during the past decade, a curious thing happened with the guy who practically made "low-key" part of his title. He racked up a remarkably successful scorecard. He might barely have squeaked by formidable re-election challenges, but he leaves office having won over his city in a big way.

Nearly seven in 10 voters -- 69 percent -- believe he did a good or very good job over the past decade, according to a St. Petersburg Times poll before the March 27 general election. This about a leader regularly derided as Mayor Mush, the Milquetoast Mayor and worse.

"Some people don't talk very loud, but they do the things that need to be done. That's why he was successful with his low-key approach," said Iveta Martin Berry, president of the Campbell Park Neighborhood Association.

Elected in 1991, Dave Fischer, who leaves office today, served as mayor longer than anyone in St. Petersburg's 109-year history. His successor, Rick Baker, handily won last Tuesday's mayor's race, essentially promising to continue where Fischer left off.

Fischer, a fit 67, finally got around to clearing out his office Friday. He didn't have much to pack -- his portrait of a flying Spitfire, the Devil Rays cap he received moments after the 1995 announcement St. Petersburg had a team, a Treasures of the Czars museum mug, the Excedrin bottle he sometimes needed to hit several times a day.

He spoke without a hint of melancholy about leaving the job behind. Much of the past 10 years wasn't fun -- bitter elections, violent civil unrest, periodic sniping editorials, dashed hopes for baseball and grand downtown development projects that went nowhere. But much of it was a blast, especially the last three years of relatively easy sailing.

"It grows on you. It becomes a part of you after 10 years," he said as he loaded cardboard boxes.

"At the same time, the things we achieved, and all we went through, it's a great feeling to be able to leave on your own terms. If I had designed this, and had a wish for how I would want to leave, I couldn't have scripted it any better. . . . I think the whole city really feels like we've come into another era. The second golden age, I call it. "

The Fischer legacy? It's either a reflection of multifaceted effectiveness or his difficulty expressing a strong vision for St. Petersburg. Close observers of City Hall disagree on that basic question.

Lawyer and former City Council member Jim Martin: "It's the financial stability he brought to city. He was able to put St. Petersburg on a sound financial footing."

Tee Lassiter, self-described grass-roots activist: "He did something no other mayor has ever done. He turned to the (poorest neighborhoods) and said, "What can we do to help?' "

Dave Zachem, a Republican politico who tried unsuccessfully to help challengers knock Fischer out of office: "Dave Fischer was the first person to realize that the establishment, the downtown interests, couldn't get anywhere politically without bringing the neighborhoods along with them."

For his part, Fischer is sure his longest-lasting stamp on St. Petersburg will be green. Fischer is fanatical about trees. He plunked down more than 18,000 new trees, and many times that number of shrubs, in every part of the city.

"As all the oaks grow, somebody is going to look around and say, 100 years from now, "Somebody once got in their craw that this city should be beautiful,' " he said.

At a farewell dinner Thursday, his final words to nearly 800 well-wishers were to exhort them to plant more trees. (He also quipped that he would spend his final days in office considering pardons for traffic tickets and code citations in exchange for donations to a Fischer Library.)

Like him, hate him or snooze at the sight of him, nobody can say that St. Petersburg is in worse shape than when Fischer took office in 1991.

After years of big spending on giant downtown projects, the city's tax rate was fast approaching its state-mandated cap. Neighborhood leaders felt neglected and angry. A $140-million stadium sat empty, along with much of the rest of downtown. A grand jury was looking at whether top city officials lied about a building sale.

Since then, the city's tax rate has been consistently nudged down. Neighborhood leaders have never had a stronger voice in city affairs. Downtown -- including a new entertainment/retail complex, and new luxury condominiums and townhomes -- is humming like it hasn't in decades. Racial tensions have subsided. St. Petersburg hosts the Tampa Bay area's baseball team.

"At the end of the day, it's like a score card in baseball. How many hits, runs and errors have you made? I think Dave Fischer will go down in history as one of the most successful mayors in St. Petersburg history," said Rick Dodge, an assistant county administrator who served as Fischer's top administrator. "It was substance, not style. He was what you hope for in a citizen politician. For him, it wasn't about power or money or influence, it was about trying to make as much of a difference as he could for St. Petersburg."

That quiet, unflappable style didn't always serve him well. When blowups occurred at City Hall, Fischer's was often one of the last voices heard. Critics saw an uninspiring, hands-off mayor who too often let a mindless bureaucracy run the city. Remember the high-tech parking meters?

The criticism of mild-mannered Dave was especially acute after Fischer barely won re-election in 1993, when voters also decided to adopt a strong mayor form of government. Fischer preferred the old system of a largely ceremonial mayor, but he wound up required to serve as city CEO. Many people saw him as a poor fit for the job.

Former Mayor Randy Wedding worked hard to elect a replacement for Fischer because of it.

"I did not see the transition between these two forms of government take place as it should have, and truthfully, I do not see it taking place coming out of his second term as strong mayor," said Wedding, who was otherwise complimentary of Fischer's record. "That will be up to Rick Baker."

With Fischer, chronically low-key does not mean wimp, however. He has been underestimated consistently as a politician, and he has not backed away from political risks.

He brought the city to the table with other area governments years ago, determined to help find a long-term solution to bitterly divisive and complex regional water problems. Ann Hildebrand, a Pasco County commissioner and chairwoman of Tampa Bay Water, said Fischer was "a major player" who had a steely determination to find a cooperative solution amid testy regional interests.

Despite deep skepticism among City Council members and strong criticism from political opponents, Fischer pushed hard to sell city-owned well fields to Tampa Bay Water to ensure a regional water supply system.

"When you take the heat to do the right thing for the region, in my mind that's a sign of being a statesman," Hildebrand said. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm always going to be looking over my shoulder to be sure Dave Fischer thinks we're doing things right."

By 1996, Fischer was touting the city's progress on race relations and downtown and neighborhood revitalization as a national model. Then came the ultimate mayoral nightmare. Police shot and killed an 18-year-old black motorist, sparking two separate nights of violent racial unrest. Amid the images of urban failure, Fischer looked shell-shocked.

He responded, eventually, by promising an unprecedented fight against inner-city hopelessness. Critics accused him of rewarding lawlessness, but Fischer was undeterred. He sat down with some of the city's most controversial black activists. He appointed the city's first African-American police chief.

Today, complaints against police are down along with the crime rate. Ambitious economic development plans are in the works for some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. But there are few signs of real progress turning around decades of poverty.

"He did promise it, but it didn't happen, not to the extent that many of us in this community had expected to happen," said Perkins Shelton, a longtime civil rights leader.

But Shelton acknowledged that entrepreneurs aren't created by quick government fiats, and that Fischer has "upgraded the neighborhoods tremendously." Overall, he gives him a B. "B is not excellent, it's good. I think he did good."

A lot of people have been coming to Fischer lately, inviting him to serve on boards of various sorts.

Mostly, he's begging off. He wants to do nothing much for a while. He talked about sailing, hitting the golf links and tennis courts, and poring over a book about Ireland's rocky political history.

"I've never really given it a chance," he said, "but I think I may be a pretty good retiree."

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