ST. PETERSBURG — All night, parents had been pleading their case before Pinellas County School Board members.
Don't move our school, one side said. Please move our school, said the other side.
In the thick of this emotional community forum at Gibbs High School last week, District 7 School Board candidate Jim Jackson rose to take the microphone, turned around to face the audience and addressed parents from the disagreeing sides.
"Stand up and give yourselves a round of applause," the 66-year-old retired professor said, clapping for both sides and nodding before launching into a quick speech that ended with him pointing at board members and telling them to listen to their constituents.
Not far away, Jackson's challenger, Lew Williams, sat quietly, listening, but not at all happy. The 67-year-old retired school administrator believed what Jackson did was, in his words, grandstanding, and not at all appropriate for this forum.
This was a place, Williams later said, where candidates like them should be listening. "I thought it was unprofessional," Williams said. "And he made that group feel as though he had their best interest at heart."
In the nonpartisan runoff for Pinellas County's District 7 representing south Pinellas County, this might just be the biggest difference between the candidates: volume.
Though Williams was the top vote getter in a three-way August primary, his manner is more reserved. If he were elected, he would be the only minority on the seven-member board. His resume boasts almost 35 years as a Pinellas County teacher, principal and area superintendent, plus a slew of endorsements that include everyone from the teachers union to retiring board member Mary Brown to former race opponent Keisha Brown, who finished last in the primary.
Still, when he walks precincts on a Saturday, he worries about waking sleepers-in. When he delivers a speech before a room of potential voters, his relaxed, slightly Southern accent stands in contrast to the confident staccato of his competitor.
"He's the ultimate gentleman, and I guess I'm not," said Jackson, who touts himself as a district outsider beholden only to his constituents. "Sometimes you have to speak a little louder and, you know, you have to make your point."
When Jackson calls voters, he's quick to give his biography and asks about what educational issues are most important to them. Jackson moved to Tampa Bay three years ago after 31 years of teaching psychology at Miami-Dade College. He quickly threw himself into local politics. He helped lead the St. Petersburg effort to elect Barack Obama president, an experience that allowed him to surround himself with politically savvy friends who would ultimately help him launch his first campaign for public office.
While Jackson's primary numbers weren't as high as he wanted — he took 33 percent of the vote to Williams' 39 percent — his fundraising numbers are. He boasts a $38,568 campaign chest compared with Williams' $14,195.
But Rene Flowers, Williams' campaign manager, said Williams' focus has not been on money.
"Lew is a worker," she said. "He's never been a loud man. And quite frankly, I think we have enough people yelling and screaming and pointing fingers."
Williams says Jackson's ideas are based in theory, not experience, and his manner potentially divisive rather than influential. Jackson says Williams is old-school and lacks the political support to win majority votes of the board. Still, when it comes to issues, the two candidates aren't always that far apart.
Both say they oppose to a plan by superintendent Julie Janssen to move Lakeview Fundamental to Gulfport Elementary in order to add more fundamental seats — the very issue that generated the debate at Gibbs that night.
And while Jackson never said what side he was on when he approached the microphone that evening, he says he revealed his stance to parents who talked with him afterward.
Despite Williams' criticism, Jackson doesn't apologize for pointing at board members or cheering the parents who spoke.
"Am I not to use these opportunities to get media time?" Jackson said. "Truly. What am I to do?"
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.