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Strong on paper, calm through all the storms

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000

David J. Fischer, who has decided not to run for re-election as mayor of St. Petersburg, is decent, responsible and thoughtful. He will go down in the history books as the city's first "strong" mayor in modern times.

During his 10 years in office the city acquired a major league baseball team, and its downtown core blossomed anew. Fischer addressed many neighborhood problems, from graffiti to prostitution.

Yet the words "strong mayor" when applied to Fischer refer mostly to his powers on paper, which were expanded by the voters in 1993. Fischer was rarely a dominant, visible political leader. As the last of the weak mayors, he had been merely first among equals at the Mayberry-style City Council. He carried that approach over into his new role.

In retrospect, Fischer was a safe choice for easing St. Petersburg into the strong-mayor form of government. He did not declare himself king or try to rebuild City Hall. More patiently than most he endured the petulant City Council, which fought (and still fights) any reduction of its domain, in a way that never quite erupted into civil war.

Fischer was a bureaucrat-in-chief, with almost limitless tolerance and credulity for other bureaucrats. Like the council, he stuck by the ridiculous Bay Plaza deal of the 1980s and early 1990s, a doomed downtown development plan, until close to the end. Whether it was satellite-guided garbage trucks or solar-powered, Rube Goldberg computerized parking meters, Fischer gave his underlings a free hand to impose new schemes on the taxpayers.

There are times when an elected political leader has to be out front. We expect the president of the United States to speak for us in times of national emergency. In times of natural disaster, the governor had better be out there in hip boots, by gum.

But that was not Fischer's style. During one tough stretch in 1999, the city was dumping raw sewage into the bay, a warehouse supervisor was charged with sucking $270,000 out of City Hall over a two-year period and the Police Department was roiled in a Keystone Kops handling of yet another internal controversy. Fischer was invisible.

Asked to comment at least on that last matter, Fischer's response was typical: "I have not had time to be briefed on it." One reason the Police Department has drifted through such turmoil is because of a weak hand at the top. Here is the 1-millionth occurrence of this comparison: Would Tampa's strong mayor, Dick Greco, have put up with it?

Despite the general belief that Fischer was a sound businessman, the city's staff and legal work sometimes was surprising. One good example of this was the 1997 decision to allow Bayfront Medical Center to enter into a partnership with Catholic hospitals without even reading the contract. (Veteran observers will recall that Fischer and the council never forced the Bay Plaza Cos. to show the alleged leases they claimed to have signed with tenants, either.)

Fischer was elected, and twice re-elected, as the city's safest alternative. His challengers -- Dennis McDonald in 1991, fired police chief Ernest Curtsinger in 1993, Bill Klein in 1997 -- came across as too angry, too scary, or too strident. The city's black residents were among Fischer's strongest supporters. In his last two victories Fischer carried almost every precinct south of Central Avenue and just a few north of it.

But that decade-long pattern of narrow victories for a "safe" insider (Fischer, and before him, Robert Ulrich) over a rabble-rousing outsider is now ended. A raft of challengers of all stripes is shaping up for the spring city elections. By waiting to decide, Fischer allowed many who might have supported him again to choose other sides. It was a good time for a graceful exit.

Ten years! Baseball failures and ultimate success, the divisive Curtsinger affair of 1992-1993, civil disturbances in 1996, an impossible City Council -- maybe a quiet man was best for getting us through it all. So thanks, Mayor.

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