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Watch the faces behind the words

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GOSIER
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By ELIJAH GOSIER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001


Televisions and telephones were invented, it seems, to help liars hide the truth.

They give us only talking heads and words flying solo. Sometimes there is more truth in a face when it is not talking, always more truth in its expressions than in its words.

That's why I went looking for Rick Baker and Goliath Davis a few days ago. I didn't like what I had just seen on television. Although Baker stood a few inches taller and wore a mustache, he had looked a lot like his buddy Jeb Bush.

The resemblance seemed well on the way to winning him the same dose of distrust, too.

Baker's solution to the city's division over the police chief looked a lot like Bush's solution to the state's division over affirmative action.

Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis was looking a lot like One Florida.

Jeb "improved" affirmative action into One Florida to appease the black voters he courted and won, yet not offend his white supporters -- many of whom were lukewarm to cool on affirmative action.

Baker "promoted" Davis to deputy mayor to appease the black voters he courted and won, while not offending his white supporters -- many of whom were lukewarm to cool on police Chief Davis.

That's the way a lot of initial thinking -- including mine -- went as we learned of the hasty promotion: Bush and Baker had played politics with hot-button issues and come up lacking. Both had tried to appease both sides on bitterly divided issues and fallen far short of pleasing either.

Baker, it appeared, had taken Davis from being the man who runs the police department and made him the man who runs to Baker.

That's the way the assessment was leaning.

I could already see Baker doing a Bush-like crying scene, lamenting that his black employees -- spelled Davis -- were being criticized.

Baker won the election with an unenthusiastic commitment to keep Davis in the city's employment. Implicit in that commitment was that Davis would stay as police chief.

He didn't have to say that explicitly: He ran against a woman who couldn't wait to get her hands on Davis' time card.

Black voters, who for the first time had a police department they didn't view with distrust and contempt, were swayed to support Baker by the expectation that the leadership and direction of the department would continue.

Now Davis, whose leadership turned the department around, is in charge of midtown economic development and Weed and Seed.

Rick Baker has work to do.

Goliath Davis has work to do.

They have confidence to restore. They have to show that this latest, sudden move wasn't a plan Baker carried in his hip pocket all along the campaign trail, and thereby he lied, in effect, when he pledged his support of Chief Davis.

He has to show the city that this wasn't just a cheap trick to make the white folks who wanted Davis gone and the white folks who wanted him to stay stop snarling at each other.

Black folks, for whom a tractable police department is a daily life and death matter, wanted him as police chief. Economic development is nice, but it takes a backseat to worrying about traveling alone because cops may be patrolling the streets.

Under Davis, St. Petersburg's police department became one of a few in the nation that has a relationship with the black community not perceived as adversarial.

That is a gain that shouldn't be frittered away on a political whim.

Two barometers will ultimately gauge the wisdom -- and the sincerity -- of Baker's move. Both will be closely watched.

One: The police must continue to police, and two: Economic development must develop some economy.

Davis' replacement at the police department will have to be someone who, like Davis, holds officers to a high standard of respect and integrity. The community, in a short couple of years, has become spoiled and will accept no less.

Economic development, especially south of Central Avenue, must for once become something more than a feel-good discussion topic. Businesses need more than encouragement; they need capital for start-up and expansion.

None of this will happen if the proponents of change don't quickly gain the confidence of the components of change. Baker and Davis must have the confidence of the business people and the work force that will power any economic growth.

All involved must believe the effort is in good faith and not political sleight of hand or boondoggle that diverts money into the pockets of economic-development consultants, administrators and other scam artists.

That's where my face-to-face with Baker and Davis was important. I didn't want a notebook full of their words. They didn't sound significantly different from words I've heard before.

I wanted to see if their words should be believed this time.

Baker's eyes became those of a teen handed the car keys for the first time, as he talked the minutiae of economic development, such as the problem day care presents for a working parent who relies on public transportation.

"You enjoy this stuff, don't you?" I interrupted.

A little-boy smile answered the question that had caught him off guard.

Davis' face answered the concern that he might be part of a less-than-sincere effort before he found the words to use. The disbelief and hurt made his words, whatever they were, irrelevant.

Face to face, neither man looked anything like Jeb Bush. Or One Florida.

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