ST. PETERSBURG — For the first time in nearly 30 years, a white man will represent District 6, long considered the heart of the city's predominantly African-American community.
The City Council voted 4-3 on Thursday night to appoint businessman and community activist Karl Nurse to fill the seat left open by Earnest Williams' resignation.
Nurse, 53, beat out four black applicants for the job.
"I feel humbled by the size of the responsibility before me," Nurse after his victory.
Nurse, who pledged to be a colorblind legislator, said he would reach out to the black community by knocking on doors and seeking the counsel of African-American neighborhood leaders.
Council Chairman Jamie Bennett, who voted for Nurse, said the council made the right decision.
"He understands the workings of government," Bennett said. "He has the shortest learning curve."
But the appointment raised more than a few eyebrows.
District 6 is 54 percent black, according to Pinellas County voter registration records.
In the weeks prior to the vote, some black community leaders spoke out about the importance of maintaining the council's diversity and warned City Hall that African-American residents would not be pleased if Nurse won the appointment over four qualified black candidates.
Williams, who resigned to run for state office earlier this month, was one of two black members of the council.
Thursday, after Nurse was announced the winner, the remaining African-American council member, Wengay Newton, who had voted against approving his appointment, stormed out of the council chamber. Newton could not be reached for comment Thursday night.
Black community activist Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter decried Nurse' appointment and told him she would be watching him closely.
"He ain't done nothing," she yelled in the council chambers as Nurse embraced his mother and wife in celebration. "Being a part of the Sierra Club ain't it. Where were you when the boys were getting shot on my street?"
During the three hour meeting, council members grilled the applicants on public safety, budget priorities, community involvement and the workings of city government.
Nurse said he wanted to provide foreclosure assistance to needy homeowners and help residents better understand the Tampa Bay Rays' waterfront stadium proposal. The team wants to build a $450-million ballpark at Al Lang Field.
Nurse denied being a member of POWW — or Preserve our Wallets and Waterfront, which opposed the new stadium — though he said he attended an early meeting hosted by the group.
He even won the support of one of his challengers when council member James Kennedy asked the candidates who they would appoint if they couldn't vote for themselves.
"If it was not me, and I really, really had to choose, I would choose Mr. Karl Nurse," said the Rev. Deborah Green, a youth minister. She then added, "He is weak as it relates to community issues with African-Americans within our neighborhoods. That's definitely something he would have to work on."
Council member Bill Dudley, who voted for political activist Cassandra Jackson, said he was fine with Nurse's appointment.
"He will do a great job," Dudley said. "Everything he has touched he has put his whole heart and soul into, and I think he will do the same here."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.