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Meet St. Petersburg mayoral candidate, outspoken activist, Republican Sharon Russ

ST. PETERSBURG — Sharon Russ is a minister without a congregation.

That hasn't stopped her from preaching.

Since moving to St. Petersburg more than a decade ago, Russ, 48, quickly earned a reputation as an outspoken activist, chastising city leaders for being too lax on crime, demanding housing for the homeless and criticizing the city's cozy network of political elites and business leaders at community forums and meetings across Pinellas County.

It's an unusual background for a mayoral candidate, but Russ, the only Republican woman in a crowded field of nine, is accustomed to taking the route less traveled.

"It isn't a good feeling when you struggle all your life and you try to get on your feet and you get beat back down," she said. "The good thing is, I haven't thrown in the towel, and I am not going to throw in the towel."

The youngest child of a maid and a lumber worker from Marianna, Russ upset family elders when she announced she was pregnant at age 17. By age 20, she was a single mother of three sons.

She graduated from high school a year later, put herself through college and ensured her disabled son became an independent adult. She lives with another son, who doubles as her campaign manager.

She has struggled to find work and pay her bills.

Russ was evicted at least three times this past decade. She blamed a knee injury that sometimes prevented her from standing or walking. "I'm not where I want to be financially, but it's not because of me," she said. "I've done everything I was supposed to do. I raised my children, I put them through college, and I put myself through college."

She had minor brushes with the law. Russ was arrested in Tallahassee in 1995 for driving with a license that had been suspended because of failure to pay a fine. She struggled with the officer and was also charged with resisting arrest, according to a police report. Adjudication of guilt was withheld.

In 1998, she was arrested in St. Petersburg on a charge of aggravated assault that was later dropped.

Russ became active in local politics after moving to Bartlett Park about a decade ago. She began a bid for City Council in 1999 but never qualified.

Russ fought Mayor Rick Baker's efforts to build Midtown's first supermarket on a corner lot known for drug deals and violence. The $1 million used to pay for the land should have been used to fight crime, she argued.

In 2004, she ran for the Pinellas County Commission against incumbent Ken Welch. In her campaign forms, she claimed she had no net worth. Russ won 32,421 votes, a fact she frequently quotes to silence critics.

Others were unimpressed.

"I didn't feel she had a grasp of the issues," said Welch, who won with 65 percent of the vote. "It was all personal. It was all basically that I shouldn't be in office based on my father being a council member, which was totally baseless."

Russ seemed to disappear after the race. She stopped attending crime watch meetings and Republican powwows and moved to New York briefly to become an ordained minister. She voted in just two of 13 recent city elections.

Still, friends said there is no one more passionate about political change. Russ wants a new police chief, a pay cut for the city's top administrators and programs to address teen pregnancy and low self-esteem that can lead to violence and generational poverty.

"She is in the race because she wants to do good things for the city of St. Petersburg," said Barbara Stephens, a friend and president of the Central Pinellas Republican Club. "She is interested in the community, not in Sharon."

But Russ' financial instability and lack of management experience could be an issue on the campaign trail — if and when she decides to put in an appearance.

Russ skipped two recent mayoral debates and has yet to raise any money. Supporters and opponents alike say it is difficult to understand how she plans to win.

"She's a strong person that could do good for the city," said Charles Payne, an activist who has worked with Russ on crime issues in Bartlett Park. Still, he said he doesn't consider her a serious candidate. "She doesn't have the experience or the know-how."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Education: St. Petersburg College, associate in arts, 2002.

Family: single, three children.

Web site: none.

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: primary.

Nov. 3: general election.

Meet St. Petersburg mayoral candidate, outspoken activist, Republican Sharon Russ 05/04/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 5, 2009 9:45am]
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