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Race question arises as City Council fills an opening

ST. PETERSBURG — Most everyone agrees: the person who replaces Earnest Williams on the City Council should have a long history of community involvement, a firm grasp of city government and the ability to hit the ground running.

But should race matter?

It is a sensitive question expected to come up today when the City Council chooses one of five candidates to represent the predominantly black District 6.

All five candidates have served on community boards, fought for neighborhood improvements and are familiar names in St. Petersburg's predominately black neighborhoods. Four are black and one is white.

Leaders in the black community say race should not be the overriding factor in the council's decision, but some argue that diversity is sorely needed among the city's highest ranks to ensure equal representation for all residents. Williams was one of two blacks on the council.

For nearly 30 years, voters have elected an African-American to represent District 6 seat and, they say, choosing the only white candidate could upset some black residents.

"African-Americans are very sensitive to our history and our history in this country," said Trenia Cox, former president of the St. Petersburg NAACP chapter. "They would feel that once again African-Americans are being perceived as not able to govern their own affairs and articulate their own needs."

But David McEachern, a black Harbordale resident, said he would be fine with a white representative who is familiar with the city and its neighborhoods.

"To me, race doesn't mean anything," he said.

The District 6 seat became vacant earlier this month when Williams resigned to run for state office. Williams' successor will be sworn in May 1.

City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett said he will not consider race when he votes today.

"I don't think it is fair to use that in your decisionmaking process," said Bennett, who is white and represents a district where nearly 50 percent of his constituents are minorities. "We need to pick the best candidate. We want to pick someone who can get in and get to work."

The race question arose at a public hearing Monday where residents where invited to pose questions to the candidates.

When asked if he could represent the district as a white man, Karl Nurse said he would be a color-blind legislator.

But his opponents questioned whether he would be able to relate to his constituents.

"I believe I can resolve some issues in the community because I look like those persons," said youth minister Deborah Green.

Race and politics have always had a tricky relationship in the district.

Legal segregation once dominated many of the neighborhoods that make up District 6. The district has become slightly more diverse in recent years. In 2004, 56 percent of voters were black, but now it is 54 percent.

But since a black man was elected to the District 6 council seat in the late 1970s, the position has been known unofficially as the "black seat.''

That tradition should be upheld, said Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter, an African-American community activist.

"Unless you walk in a person's shoes and unless you come and spend time around those people, I don't think you can really understand what their problems are," she said.

Even some white residents said they are unsure whether or not the council should address race.

"In a perfect world, I would say no, it should not be considered," said Mike Gulley, who lives in Coquina Key and supports Nurse's appointment. "But I also understand the neighborhood, and then you think, well, maybe it is something they should consider."

Who's who among the District 6 candidates

• Deborah Green, 45, case manager for Hospice of the Florida Suncoast and president of Earth Mission Ministries.

• Karl Nurse, 53, owner of Bay Tech Label, founder of the Pinellas Living Green Expo and a former mayoral candidate.

• David Welch, 80, former council member, owner of Welch Accounting Services and a St. Petersburg Housing Authority board member.

• Gwendolyn Reese, 59, chief executive of InFinite Solutions; chairwoman of Close the Gap, an education nonprofit; and former co-chairwoman of the city's Community Alliance committee, which advocates for diversity issues.

• Cassandra Jackson, 48, former District 6 candidate, president of the Pinellas Black Republican Club and former Pinellas County Housing Authority board member.

Who's who among the District 6 candidates:

• Deborah Green, 45, case manager for Hospice of the Florida Suncoast and president of Earth Mission Ministries.

• Karl Nurse, 53, owner of Bay Tech Label, founder of the Pinellas Living Green Expo and a former mayoral candidate.

• David Welch, 80, former council member, owner of Welch Accounting Services and a St. Petersburg Housing Authority board member.

• Gwendolyn Reese, 59, chief executive of InFinite Solutions; chairwoman of Close the Gap, an education nonprofit; and former co-chairwoman of the city's Community Alliance committee, which advocates for diversity issues.

• Cassandra Jackson, 48, former District 6 candidate, president of the Pinellas Black Republican Club and former Pinellas County Housing Authority board member.

Race question arises as City Council fills an opening 04/24/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 24, 2008 6:19pm]
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