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Fischer: 10 years is enough

St. Petersburg's mayor will not seek re-election to a fourth term. He calls it "a pretty good exit.''

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- David J. Fischer, who presided as St. Petersburg mayor during downtown disappointment and development, the debut of Major League Baseball and violent disturbances that exposed racial rifts in the city, said Tuesday that he will not seek a fourth term.

"Dave Fischer started thinking maybe 10 years is enough," Fischer explained Tuesday. "I see all the things that this city has done. I'm so proud of it. I feel pleased I can leave it, at my own volition, in such good shape."

After wrestling for several weeks with whether he should run for a fourth term, Fischer, 67, chose to retire and remind St. Petersburg of his administration's accomplishments, such as bringing the major leagues and the NCAA basketball tournament to St. Petersburg, attracting the BayWalk entertainment and shopping complex to downtown, and strengthening government's ties to the city's neighborhoods.

That might have made a decent re-election campaign platform, but, Fischer said, "it's also a pretty good exit."

City voters approved a mayoral term limit last year. Because he was already in office, Fischer is exempt, but he said he gets the message, especially after Tampa voters declined to repeal a similar law last month.

St. Petersburg resident and Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart said Fischer was the right person at the right time, but that that time is over.

"He brought stability to the community when we needed it," Stewart said. "I appreciate that it probably was a tough decision for him. I think it is a signal the community is sending up with the high number of candidates. I salute the mayor for reading the writing on the wall."

Had he decided to run, Fischer would have faced a bruising mayoral race against nine other candidates full of criticism of his administration. In the worst case he could have been defeated in the primary.

"Getting out of the primary is going to be tough. I certainly looked at that," Fischer said Tuesday, adding that strategy did not prompt his decision.

"As far as running goes, I've had nothing but tough races," he said.

Fischer was elected in 1991 to what was then the largely ceremonial post of mayor. In 1993, he won re-election by a tiny margin over former police chief Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger as voters also approved a change to city government making the mayor the chief administrator. Fischer narrowly won re-election in 1997, again defeating a more conservative candidate by winning near unanimous support in the city's black neighborhoods and just enough of the rest of the city to squeak by.

Fischer presided over St. Petersburg during a decade when a mid-sized city struggled loudly with deep-rooted problems. It was often contentious and ugly, but in several respects St. Petersburg made obvious progress.

In the early 1990s, the Bay Plaza Cos. and the city had torn down whole blocks of buildings in the city's struggling downtown but could find no way to pay for new buildings. Fischer had supported those efforts.

"Bay Plaza left," Fischer recalled, dashing the hopes of those who believed Bay Plaza's plan to turn downtown into a mall held the city's future. But the city eventually recovered.

"As the economy picked up, we were prepared for it," Fischer said. "The blocks were cleared," and a local group of businessmen agreed to build a smaller-scale project, BayWalk, which opened last month with a 20-screen movie house and upscale clothier Ann Taylor as anchor tenants.

Fischer recalled how he came into office in 1991 when the city had a new, $140-million domed stadium but no baseball team to play there.

"If we didn't get a team, I was going to go down in history as the guy who didn't get a team," Fischer recalled. It took a while, but Major League Baseball awarded the Tampa Bay Devil Rays franchise in 1995.

Fischer pushed the city property tax rate down by some 20 percent during his tenure, shaving a fraction from the rate each year. And he set up a city neighborhood department, where neighborhood associations could address their concerns to the city. He landscaped the city's main thoroughfares to give a good first impression to visitors.

And the largest city crisis in decades happened during Fischer's administration.

In 1996, several poor neighborhoods south of downtown erupted in violent protest after a white police officer shot a black motorist to death during a traffic stop. To many black residents, the shooting was another example of how heavy-handed the Police Department was with black people.

A national television audience saw St. Petersburg on fire.

Fischer had been trying to work to improve the Police Department and conditions in neighborhoods that lagged the city's standard of living, he says, and he felt certain his efforts were working.

"That took me by surprise, but it was quite a wake-up call," he said of the disturbances.

During the aftermath, Fischer sat down with influential people in the community and, based on their advice, crafted a program called Challenge 2001. He promised extravagant progress by the end of his term: The city would create 2,500 jobs, make 425 families homeowners and reduce the number of blighted buildings by half.

In June, Fischer renamed the program the Challenge, an acknowledgment that the city was far from meeting those goals and needed to keep working.

"It's surprising to me he's not running, especially with his commitment to economic development (in poor neighborhoods) that went unfulfilled," said African-American community activist Rodney Bennett. "Development was done downtown."

Bennett said Fischer at least reached out to African-American residents, but added, "I think he should have had more of a focus and put forth a better effort to make it happen. He really could have driven that train from his office, but he didn't."

Fischer named Goliath Davis III as the city's first African-American police chief in 1997, and Davis sought to change the culture of the police department.

"The mayor, through his convictions, has addressed issues that have long been ignored in the city," Davis said Tuesday.

But Davis' community policing emphasis has attracted criticism from city residents who prefer a law-and-order approach. The Police Department is already shaping up as a hot issue in the mayoral campaign.

"What does that have to do with me?" Davis joked when asked Tuesday about Fischer's decision not to run. "I'm confident, (that) if I choose to do so, I can work with whomever is mayor," he added.

The police officers union, which dislikes Davis, will endorse a mayoral candidate who will pledge to replace him, said Bill LauBach, police union attorney and executive director.

Fischer had previously told friends that he would seek re-election. But in recent days, some of those closest to him sensed that he was changing his mind.

"I think he truly had not made a definite decision up until the last few days or hours," said Don McRae, Fischer's chief of staff.

Architect Tim Clemmons gave Fischer high marks for his support of redevelopment downtown, but he said more active times may call for a more visible mayor.

"I think he has done a lot of the things he said he was going to do," Clemmons said.

The one decision Fischer would take back if he could? Installing expensive French parking pay stations, which motorists found confusing and frustrating.

"The parking stations were pretty stupid," Fischer said Tuesday.

He realizes different people will remember his tenure quite differently.

"I've never had a mandate exactly," Fischer said. "They will remember me in all sorts of different ways."

- Times staff writers Leanora Minai and Sharon Bond contributed to this report.

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