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Former St. Petersburg council member Kathleen Ford returns to the political arena in mayoral bid

The second-place finisher in the 2001 mayoral campaign, Kathleen Ford, 51, is attempting to resurrect her political career after eight years away from City Hall.

Photo provided by Kathleen Ford

The second-place finisher in the 2001 mayoral campaign, Kathleen Ford, 51, is attempting to resurrect her political career after eight years away from City Hall.

ST. PETERSBURG — On the issues, Kathleen Ford can still talk circles around most political opponents.

But that was never Ford's problem.

For Ford, the questions are all about tone.

The second-place finisher in the 2001 mayoral campaign, Ford, 51, is attempting to resurrect her political career after eight years away from City Hall.

She knows all the stories that continue to dog her. The one where she rolled her eyes at the opinions of fellow City Council members.

The one where people suggested she was attacking the city's police chief because he was black. The one about the city employee she grilled and grilled to the point he resigned.

Ford offers no apologies for her actions, which have been cheered by those who feel City Hall has failed them.

"How do you feel when someone lies to you?" Ford asks in response to questions about her aggressiveness. "I think it's clear that city staff was misrepresenting information. And I'm not bashful about calling them on it."

A former University of Virginia track star who earned her law degree in Texas while working as a registered nurse, Ford rose to political prominence in the 1990s as the antithesis to Mayor David Fischer, and later Mayor Rick Baker.

Elected to the City Council in 1997 after a stint as a neighborhood association president, she established herself as a challenge to the status quo in City Hall, and quickly sought to wrestle power away from the city's top executive.

In her four years on council, Ford:

• Suggested the council hire its own attorney rather than use the city attorney, who reports to the mayor.

• Proposed the council hire its own downtown development administrator.

• Skipped a City Council retreat meant to improve council harmony.

• Hired a court reporter to record minutes of a city meeting.

"She has the tenacity and guts to go after things that none of (the other candidates) will," said Jim Donelon, a Ford supporter and past president St. Petersburg Democratic Club.

Donelon describes Ford as strident. "Some people take that and get turned off by it," he said. "I'm attracted to it."

In 2001, Ford ran for mayor, finishing second in a nine-way primary before losing the general election to Baker 57 percent to 43 percent.

During the campaign, Baker made it a point to talk about Ford's temperament, pointing out that four former City Council members that Ford served with were all supporting him.

Without mentioning Ford by name, Baker recently relaunched the temperament attack during a speech to the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club.

"Temperament is very important," Baker said. "You've got a lot of opportunity to utter harsh words, and you've got to catch them."

Ford has heard the rhetoric before.

Does she think it's sexist, a reporter asks.

"I'm not going there," starts Ford, who seems eager to say more. Five seconds later, she does. "A guy would be praised for doing what I did."

Ford returned to the public stage last year as a vocal opponent of the Tampa Bay Rays' proposal to build a $450 million waterfront stadium. She promised at first that the move wasn't setting up a run for mayor, but changed her mind after seeing that among the other candidates, "there were no leaders."

She became the legal expert for the group Preserve Our Wallets and Waterfront, drafting two proposed amendments to the city charter that would require public referendums for any major waterfront development, and for any taxpayer subsidy to a professional sports franchise.

Even with the issue on hold, the stadium is still one of the central tenants of Ford's campaign. Stadium opponents make up a core group of her support. Being one of two female candidates in a potential nine-way primary Sept. 1 also could help her case.

Ford's position on a ballpark is clear: The Rays will not build a new stadium using public money or on public land anywhere in the city without a citywide vote. She also said recently that county citizens should be allowed to vote on any plan involving county taxpayer funds.

"I'd love for the Rays to stay here," said Ford, who grew up listening to baseball games with her grandfather in Milwaukee. "They have a agreement to play here through 2027. I intend to enforce that contract."

Kathleen Ford,
51, lawyer

Education: University of Virginia, bachelor in nursing, 1979; South Texas College of Law, juris doctorate awarded, 1985.

Family: Husband Harvey A. Ford, two children.

Web site: www.kathleenford.com.

Fast facts

About the job

St. Petersburg's mayor is elected to a four-year term and is paid $162,314. As the city's chief administrator, the mayor oversees a roughly $217 million operating budget and 2,800 municipal employees.

Key dates

Sept. 1: primaryNov. 3: general election

Former St. Petersburg council member Kathleen Ford returns to the political arena in mayoral bid 04/29/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 4:37pm]
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