ST. PETERSBURG — Sen. Barack Obama came to St. Petersburg to call for a new round of $1,000 rebate checks to jump-start the economy, but his message of hope was nearly eclipsed by hecklers.
"The first thing I want to do Florida is just ask you a very simple question: Do you think that you are better off now than you were four years ago or eight years ago? And if you don't think you're better off, do you think you can afford another four years of the same failed economic policies that we've had under George W. Bush?" Obama asked the boisterous crowd of 1,000 that greeted him Friday with chants of "Yes, we can! Yes, we can."
Partway through touting his proposals for the economy at the Gibbs High School auditorium, activists with the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement began shouting about him ignoring oppression of African-Americans. Obama quizzically looked behind him to see several audience members with a banner reading, "What about the black community, Obama?"
The audience shouted them down, someone snatched the banner, and the Secret Service moved in. Later Obama invited one of the men to ask him a question, and chastised supporters — "Hold on a second, I want everybody to be respectful" — who jeered the young man.
"In the face of all these attacks that are clearly being made on the African community, why is it that you have not had the ability to not one time speak to the interests and even speak on behalf of the oppressed and exploited African community or the black community in this country?" Diop Olugbala asked, citing predatory lenders, Hurricane Katrina, Jena 6 and police shootings.
It's a question that echoes recent complaints by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and others that Obama has shied from addressing problems facing black Americans.
Obama answered, saying, "On each of these issues that you've mentioned, I have spoken out, and I've spoken out forcefully. Now, I may not have spoken out the way that you would have wanted me to speak out, which is fine."
Laura Schrecka, 24, of St. Petersburg was impressed with Obama's response: "It shows he responds to criticism well."
Obama used his first stop in St. Petersburg since securing the Democratic nomination to call for a $1,000 "emergency energy rebate" that could go out to families this fall and be funded by taxing the profits of oil companies.
"This rebate will be enough to offset the increased cost of gas for a working family over the next four months," Obama said. "It will be enough to cover the entire increase in your heating bills. Or you could use the rebate for any of your other bills, or even to pay down your own debt."
In an exclusive interview with the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9, Obama also responded to charges from Sen. John McCain's campaign that he was playing the race card by telling voters in Missouri this week that the McCain campaign is trying to remind people that Obama "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."
"What I said was what I think everybody knows, which is that I don't look like I came out of central casting when it comes to presidential candidates. … There was nobody there who thought at all that I was trying to inject race in this," Obama said in the interview to air Sunday on Bay News 9's Political Connections. "What this has become I think is a typical pattern from the McCain campaign. … They seem to be focused on a negative campaign and what I think our campaign wants to do is focus on the issues that matter to American families."
At Gibbs High, Obama fielded questions ranging from a national catastrophic fund to help alleviate Florida's property insurance crisis — Obama supports that — to whether he would push for less meat-eating — Obama confessed he enjoys steak.
Later Friday, Obama made a surprise stop at Parkesdale Farm market in Plant City. Owner Jim Meeks told him former President George Bush, President Bush, former Gov. Jeb Bush and former Rep. Mike Bilirakis had all visited and eaten the strawberry shortcake. "And guess what? They all won their elections," Meeks said.
"I should get some shortcake, too," said the candidate, who had to settle for a strawberry milkshake that Meeks said would be good luck, too.
Times political editor Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8241.