Candidates vie for first black mayor title
ST. PETERSBURG -- A slew of candidates are gunning to be the city's first black mayor, including a few contenders whose skin color and heritage peg them as clearly white.
Bill Foster and Scott Wagman, who are both white, are campaigning to be St. Petersburg's first black mayor, joining candidates Deveron Gibbons and Sharon Russ, who are African-American. Wagman and Foster said their administrations would transcend race because they would equally represent all ethnic groups, including the black community.
The racially tinged rhetoric points to the high-profile role the African-American community will likely play in deciding St. Petersburg's next mayor, according to black leaders. More than 20 percent of St. Petersburg's residents are black and several past mayoral campaigns have been won in the pews and prayer circles of local African-American churches.
"What I think is good about it is the candidates recognize the importance of the black community," said State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who has rallied for greater diversity within City Hall.
"They know they are going to be splitting the Caucasian vote, so they know they need the African- American vote to make them the man," said council member Wengay Newton, the city's highest ranking African-American. "If there were more Asians, they would probably be saying they are going to be the first Asian mayor."
The black mayor battle kicked off at an NAACP event last week. Rouson discussed strides the African-American community had made in 2008, the most significant being the election of the nation's first black president. St. Petersburg was now poised to elect its first black mayor, added Rouson, a tentative Gibbons supporter.
Foster, a former council member, corrected Rouson.
"He said something like, 'I hope you were talking about me or can I be the first black mayor?'" Rouson recalled. "I said, 'if Bill Clinton could be the first black president, certainly you have the opportunity.'"
Foster later confirmed he had his eye on the title.
"I want to be that. I want to be the city’s first black mayor," he said in a recent interview. "Part of our goal in being seamless is it transcends race, it transcends social economics."
Wagman, a local businessman and well-known philanthropist, said he also approached Rouson and expressed interest in being dubbed the city's first black mayor.
But not every white candidate plans on playing the race card. Council chairman and mayoral hopeful Jamie Bennett said he doesn't need to call himself black to win over the African-American community.
"This is just a silly way to start the campaign," he said.
Cristina Silva, Times staff writer