30 people stand at City Hall to denounce Ford's comment
ST. PETERSBURG — A diverse group of prominent businessmen, community organizers and ministers gathered on the steps of City Hall on Monday to denounce a racially charged comment made by mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford last week.
The rally, organized by former mayoral candidate Deveron Gibbons, drew more than 30 people in opposition to Ford’s use of the acronym “HNIC” during a radio interview that touched on the role of Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, the city’s first black police chief.
“We will not accept anyone using racial terms to downgrade anyone,” said Gibbons, who is black.
Gibbons said it did not matter that Ford’s use of the term referred to a Negro or a similar racial epithet.
“I am not a Negro. I am an African-American,” said Gibbons, who has endorsed Ford’s rival, Bill Foster. “We are not Negroes. We are past that.”
Meanwhile, a handful of Ford’s supporters or fellow Democrats have defended her statement, including State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP and council member Wengay Newton, City Hall’s only elected black official.
“If she is quoting a professor, then she didn’t say it, he said it,” said Newton in a telephone interview Friday.
Foster is a Republican. So are Gibbons and some of those who stood at City Hall Monday.
Ford used the term during an interview last week on the Bubba the Love Sponge Clem radio show on WHPT-FM 102.5.
Clem criticized Davis, a former police chief and current deputy mayor for Midtown economic development, as the “quasi-leader of the African-Americans.”
The shock jock added: “To me, it’s talking down to them, that they have to somebody to quell them and keep them in line.”
Ford’s response: “Actually Cornel West has a whole explanation about the HNIC theory,” she said, “and I agree with that. We don’t need one spokesman for a group.”
West, a professor at Princeton University, used the term in his 1994 book Race Matters.
“The time is past for black political and intellectual leaders to pose as the voice for Black America,” West wrote. “The days of brokering for the black turf — of posing as the Head Negro in Charge — are over.”
Ford could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
Asked about her use of the phrase last week, Ford stressed that she did not call Davis an HNIC. She said she was making the point that the city does not need a black liaison to the black community.
“I want everybody to feel like they can ask me anything, and they don’t have to go through a certain staff member,” she said.
The issue has quickly developed into the mayoral race’s latest political brawl after various media outlets reported the story Friday.
Among those gathered at City Hall on Monday were pilot Ed Montanari, pilot Jack Tunstill and restaurateur Mike Atwater, all Foster supporters.
Sevell Brown, interim director of the National Christian Leadership Conference, said Ford’s use of the term was indefensible. He insisted Ford essentially called Davis an ignorant puppet put in place by white leaders.
“They ought to shut their mouths if they don’t know the meaning of the words they are introducing to the public dialogue,” he said.
Brown said he does not think West would agree that Davis is an HNIC.
Brown then praised Foster.
“We appreciate Bill Foster not introducing words that will cause a racial divide,” he said.
Newton, however, said he did not find the term offensive.
“I heard it in 'Lean on Me’,” he said. “It means a person in charge.”
Ramsey McLauchlan, chair of Pinellas Democrats, sent out an e-mail to supporters this morning that alluded to the issue.
"Almost twice as many people are supporting Ford because of her knowledge of the issues -- it is important for all of us to stay focused on the issues and avoid the personal attacks being made by Bill Foster and his campaign," he wrote. "Look for Foster to try to create a division within the African American community. Despite the fact that Ford was on the Obama/Biden legal team trying to protect a fair election and Bill Foster and many of his supporters were opposing the President, many African Americans are still undecided in the race for mayor."
Cristina Silva, Times Staff Writer