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An anchor for a turbulent party

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 4, 2001

His voice rings with the cadence of a Presbyterian minister, which he is. And his words convey the beliefs of a liberal Democrat, which he also is.

His pedigree includes an Ivy League degree, which might make you think highfalutin blue blood. But he isn't averse to mowing the grass at party headquarters.

Meet Bob Shirer, de facto leader of the Pinellas Democratic Party. With apologies to Cheryl Long, the recently elected chair of the Pinellas Democratic Executive Committee, Shirer, 72, has been the stalwart of a group that has had a half-dozen chairs in as many years.

While Pinellas voters have leaned Democratic when choosing presidents and governors, the party has had a tough time locally. Only two of Pinellas' nine state representatives are Democrats and two of seven county commissioners. Neither of the two state senators and none of the county's five constitutional officers are Dems.

Simply put, they've been outspent and out-organized and have had difficulty fielding good candidates in some races. Democrats might collectively grit their teeth at his methods and beliefs, but few can argue with the order that Pinellas Republican party chief Paul Bedinghaus has brought to the other camp.

Order is what has been lacking in the Democratic side, which is not news to them. They have described the task of organizing Democrats as being on par with herding feral cats.

They are struggling with basics. They are close, but have yet to buy a phone list of local Democrats from the state party. They're training volunteers on how to go door-to-door and promote Democratic candidates. And they're recruiting Democrats at the city and county level to run for higher office.

"We need a farm team," Shirer said. "We don't have one."

Shirer, who lives in Seminole, has been vice president of the county party for five years. He says he has no desire to be chair and has refused entreaties to run for the job. He cites a conflict between his religion and his politics. It goes something like this: He doesn't want the public to equate his religious position (50 years with the Presbyterians) with the party's position.

"It tends to line people up along religious lines and not on the merits of the issue," explained Shirer.

He is a quirky mix all around: While he says it is time a woman was elected governor in Florida, he is not supporting either of the two potential female candidates because, he says, they can't win.

I say: That statement might make people mad. He says: It should.

Shirer spent the first 10 years of his life in Africa, the son of missionaries. He has traveled the world, is a student of history and reads national publications to keep up with politics and policy.

He is no Florida newcomer. He brought his wife and two children to St. Petersburg in 1962 to be pastor for a fledgling church in the Maximo Moorings area. His name turns up in newspaper stories from the 1968 garbage strike, a voice of support for workers, nearly all of whom were African-American. He advocated better housing for low-income people and headed the non-profit effort to build the John Knox Apartments near the Trop.

In short, Shirer has made a career of getting involved. He is an activist, an intellectual who cuts the grass, opens doors for women and knows a lot about tribal customs in Ghana.

The questions faced by Shirer and the top level of the local party are these: Will they be able to draw vital people to the group and yet maintain a semblance of order? And how will they counteract the huge Republican money advantage?

Ever the optimist, Shirer says the executive committee has doubled its membership to 200 in a year. But he cautions fellow organizers:

"Don't go whistling that we're going to have enough money. We're not. But if we can get our people out canvassing, we can overcome the money. We have people power."

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