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Former Foster campaign worker gets noticed at City Hall

ST. PETERSBURG — Earlier this month, Jeff Copeland stood on Al Lang Field with more than 25 athletes and community leaders, part of an all-star cast named to Mayor Bill Foster's new Sports Alliance.

The day before, Copeland celebrated the City Council's decision to extend bar hours from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. Copeland chaired a political action committee that pushed for the later closing.

The 40-year-old self-described "air freshener executive" has emerged as something of a fixture at City Hall. Yet ask any political insider about him, and they are more likely to talk about his father.

Bishop John. L. Copeland, the pastor of Macedonia Free Will Baptist Church, died eight years ago, but is widely remembered for being a community leader.

"I know Jeff because of his dad," said Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP chapter. "His father was well respected. I loved his dad. Jeff? What does he do? Good question."

Whatever he's doing, it's hard to miss him.

At the May 7 press conference to announce the Sports Alliance, Copeland was introduced as part of the group that would work behind the scenes to promote the city as a destination for sporting events. The group, which includes athletes such as former Buccaneer Mike Alstott and LPGA golf champ Brittany Lincicome, would use connections to land moneymaking events like the NCAA Final Four and international baseball.

Although Copeland was identified as a "sports activist" by the city marketing staff, his athletic background is limited to his friendships with celebrities such as boxer Winky Wright.

Similarly, Copeland had no obvious tie to the city's bar scene when he formed the St. Petersburg Hospitality Association to lobby for a later closing time.

Copeland said he didn't get paid for his work in collecting petition signatures that he submitted the day before the vote. At 40, he says he's not much of a clubber anymore. He doesn't own or work at a bar or restaurant.

What he does have, however, are political connections. One big one: his tie to Foster. Copeland worked on his mayoral campaign last year.

Before the council's May 6 vote, Foster was asked where he stood on the longer bar hours.

"I don't oppose it," said Foster, whose mayoral campaign was supported by some St. Petersburg bars.

The Venue, an Ulmerton Road nightclub that strongly lobbied for the later closing, hosted a Sept. 30 fundraiser for Foster. Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill, which supported the change as well, hosted his election night party.

At the victory party, owner Mark Ferguson said he didn't lobby Foster, but did talk about changing the hours with Jeff Knight of Jannus Live.

"He said this is one of the things that we should get done now," Ferguson said. "I'd been wanting to get this done for years."

Ferguson said he didn't know Copeland, despite his role at the head of a committee pushing the same goal.

Foster downplayed Copeland's role, saying he didn't realize until the council vote that his Sports Alliance appointee had lobbied for the longer hours. Foster also drew a blank on Copeland's role in his campaign.

He said Copeland introduced him to community leaders, but couldn't recall which ones.

"Ministers, business people," Foster said. "He tried to open doors for me to people that I otherwise didn't know."

But Copeland's political clout is less than certain.

Some, like state Rep. Darryl Rouson, say Copeland provides invaluable benefits for candidates.

"He has connections with churches and faith communities," said Rouson. "If I needed to go to 10 churches next week, Jeff would be the one I would call to ride along with me."

Others, such as council member Wengay Newton, think Copeland's influence is overblown.

"He's a yes man," Newton said. "His dad was really popular, but he's not the same caliber. He's pretty much a follower."

Copeland worked as a liaison to black churches for Deveron Gibbons' mayoral campaign, according to Nick Hansen, his former campaign manager.

"(Copeland) knows a lot of pastors," Hansen said. "So he would set up meetings, go to churches on Sunday on behalf of Deveron. He's pretty well known in the community."

After Gibbons lost the primary, the black vote was crucial in determining the winner between Foster and Kathleen Ford, two white candidates. Copeland chose to work on Foster's campaign, where, again, he said he only volunteered.

Gibbons and Hansen said they don't know what Copeland did for Foster. Foster's campaign manager, Jim Neader, who now works as a $50,000-a-year sports consultant for the city, said he didn't oversee Copeland, Hansen did.

Tampa and Newton, who had no roles in Foster's campaign, said they saw Copeland drive him to events. Foster said this isn't true.

Copeland explained his involvement this way:

"I wasn't a key player," he said. "I was out walking in the streets, volunteering. I know a lot of pastors, so I'd get the word out. Most people love me. I'm genuine."

It's a carefree role that he says he will continue to play, be it on Foster's Sports Alliance or whatever else comes his way. Indications are it may touch on a variety of issues.

On May 11, for instance, Foster met with Copeland and Jim Holton, a Madeira Beach lawyer and real estate developer.

Copeland said the meeting was about a new city song. During a phone interview, he said he would call back with more details, but never did. He didn't return phone calls seeking further comment.

Foster said Holton, a former member of the Florida Transportation Commission who co-hosted his fundraiser at The Venue, was there to discuss rail.

"They came together," Foster said. "I assume they came together because they were friends. I'm friends with (Copeland) too, so I'm not going to ask him to leave."

During the meeting, Foster said, Copeland just listened.

"I don't know why Jeff was there," Foster said.

As his activities continue, more questions are likely to surface about Copeland's role in city politics, Tampa said.

"He's obviously developed a relationship with the mayor," said Tampa. "What the relationship is, that's the question."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Former Foster campaign worker gets noticed at City Hall 05/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 22, 2010 10:37pm]

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