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Council member Karl Nurse knows clock is ticking

Since his controversial appointment in May, City Councilman Karl Nurse has been trying to win over the mainly black residents he represents in District 6.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Since his controversial appointment in May, City Councilman Karl Nurse has been trying to win over the mainly black residents he represents in District 6.

ST. PETERSBURG — Karl Nurse couldn't catch a break in local politics for nearly two decades. Finally on the inside, he doesn't want to take a break.

Nurse, a former community activist with two failed bids for public office, has quickly become the hardest working man in local government since his controversial appointment to the City Council four months ago.

Since then, Nurse has launched a foreclosure prevention campaign, pushed for more government transparency, demanded increased protection for the downtown waterfront, chastised the police chief over crime-fighting efforts, suggested overhauling the code compliance process, lobbied for greater environmental standards and presented a key to the city to Barack Obama.

Council Chairman Jamie Bennett, only half joking, has taken to referring to the one-man crusade as "the 100 days of Karl Nurse" and even Nurse's fiercest political rivals begrudgingly acknowledge his drive.

But the original controversy that overshadowed Nurse's appointment stands. Nurse, sworn in 100 days ago today, is the first white person in nearly 30 years to represent the predominately black, low-income neighborhoods that comprise District 6, and he has yet to assure some black leaders of his commitment to their struggles.

He's making waves, they acknowledge, but are they the right ones?

"He has no clue about what being a council person from Midtown is all about," said Theresa Lassiter, a black activist who protested Nurse's appointment. "What is he doing for 16th Street, to revitalize that?… What is he doing for 22nd street?"

Even Nurse worries his skin color could keep him from being elected to the post when his term expires next year.

"I work under the assumption that the clock is ticking," said Nurse, who owns Bay Tech Label, a printing company. "I have to use every minute that I've got."

Nurse was appointed in May after Earnest Williams vacated the post to make a failed bid for the Legislature. Nurse, 53, beat out four well-known black applicants.

District 6, which includes parts of downtown, Midtown and Coquina Key, is 54 percent black, Pinellas County voter registration records show.

Nurse failed to make it past the primary when he ran for District 6 in 1993. He ran for mayor in 2001 but lost to Rick Baker.

Still, his political profile was on the rise. His background includes stints as chairman of the St. Petersburg Planning Commission, founder of Pinellas Living Green, and president of the Council of Neighborhood Association, a group that wields clout at City Hall.

The self-professed policy wonk wasted no time when his dream finally came true. While new council members tend to sit back and watch their first few days, Nurse charged ahead, e-mailing city staff members to set up meetings and suggesting new legislation.

"He is a little more attuned to the process than most" new council members, said Leslie Curran, a longtime City Council veteran.

Some of Nurse's proposals were met with disdain.

In the thick of the debate over whether to put the Tampa Bay Rays' $450-million stadium plan before voters, Nurse suggested a referendum to preserve Al Lang Field as a waterfront park.

It crashed and burned. First-term council member Wengay Newton even accused Nurse of being in bed with stadium opponents.

True to form, Nurse didn't raise his voice. He waited patiently and tried again. And on Thursday, the council scheduled a workshop to discuss rezoning Al Lang as a park and to limit the height of what can be built there, steps that could make it harder to build a new stadium there.

Nurse is taking the slow and steady approach to winning over black constituents. He has attended a prayer rally at Gibbs High, talked at NAACP events, asked local black politicians for advice and gone door to door to introduce himself to voters.

"He seems to really want to reach out and let people get acquainted with him," said black activist Abdul Karim Ali. "I've even heard some people say, 'Hey, that Karl Nurse is not all that bad.' "

Council member Karl Nurse knows clock is ticking 08/07/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 9, 2008 9:38pm]
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