ST. PETERSBURG — Minutes after Thursday's vote appointing Karl Nurse to the City Council, his new colleagues filed back into their private meeting room and patted themselves on the back.
"We did the right thing," Council Chairman Jamie Bennett told the other council members.
But by Friday morning, it became clear that what could have been a routine appointment had become anything but.
An outspoken civic activist who has butted heads with city leaders, Nurse's appointment could affect the council's relationship with Mayor Rick Baker, race relations across the city, future elections and the Tampa Bay Rays' stadium proposal.
The political reaction varied: Baker said he would not have voted for Nurse, the council's lone black member said the appointment set back equal representation efforts three decades and civic leaders pleaded that Nurse be given a fair chance.
"If Karl doesn't do well, we will all have picked the wrong guy," Bennett said Friday. "If he does well, this day will dissolve into history."
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As president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, Nurse, 53, was the mayor's most vocal critic, demanding stricter law enforcement and greater change in Midtown. Nurse lost to Baker in the 2001 election.
Now, Nurse can shake up City Hall, supporters said.
"In the past, the City Council has not been perceived as being independent of the mayor's office and that perception is changing," said Darden Rice, a former District 6 candidate. "Karl Nurse is someone who is going to work well with everyone and is not someone who is going to rock the boat just for the sake of rocking the boat."
Baker and Nurse met for a cordial meeting Friday.
"We aren't going to have any problem working together," Baker said. "He genuinely wants to find ways to make the city better, which is what I want too."
Baker added, "I would have voted another way," but declined to elaborate.
A question of race
Nurse's appointment has sparked debate in the black community over diversity and equal representation. About 54 percent of voters in District 6 are African-American.
Former council member Bill Foster said when City Council districts were redrawn in 2003, race was a big part of the discussion.
"It was very important to everyone that the lines be drawn to ensure the greatest possibility of African-American representation on City Council," he said.
Council member Wengay Newton, who did not support Nurse's appointment, said he was surprised by the decision.
Voters "have kept that seat African-American through the democratic process," he said. "It took my Caucasian colleagues two minutes to undo what they spent 30 years doing. It put them back 30 years."
Before Thursday's vote, council Chairman Jamie Bennett, who plans to run for mayor next year, said he was threatened not to appoint Nurse. "You vote for Karl Nurse, you'll never be mayor," Bennett said people told him.
Bennett said he voted for Nurse anyway because he was the most qualified.
Nurse said he plans to meet regularly with his constituents, attend neighborhood events and seek advice from black leaders.
"I understand why people might feel uncomfortable. They feel like they lost one of their seats," he said. "I hope they give me a chance. I want to help."
The stadium question
Some residents hope Nurse's leadership skills will come in handy as the city considers the Tampa Bay Rays' proposed $450-million stadium.
Although Nurse has not taken a public stance on the stadium, he attended an early brainstorming meeting organized by Preserve our Wallets and Waterfront (POWW), which opposes the new ballpark. Nurse has said he is not a member of POWW.
But the group's leader said he is eager to see Nurse, a staunch environmentalist, in action on the council.
"It's fair to say that Karl is a bright guy and he knows a lot about what is going on," said POWW founder Hal Freedman.
That concerns stadium fans such as Kenny Locke.
"It would be the equivalent of me being appointed to a seat and having the ability to vote," said Locke, founder of Fans for Waterfront Stadium.
Times Staff Writer Sandra Gadsden contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]