ST. PETERSBURG — To friends, Bill Foster is well spoken and thoughtful, accessible, inventive and mayoral.
To critics, Bill Foster is a right-wing conservative who has a pattern of inserting religious rhetoric into secular debates.
Of the nine candidates running for mayor, Foster, 46, perhaps is painted most in dichotic terms. The chasm underscores Foster's natural popularity and strong opposition, both of which will surface before the city's Sept. 1 primary.
"He has the capacity to play to the crowd a little bit," said Jay Lasita, who served with Foster on the City Council. "He's not a chameleon, he has his core values, but he also has this way of talking to people. It's a gift."
Foster's devout religious beliefs — Foster is Baptist — can intermingle with his political positions, his nine-year record on the City Council shows.
Foster strenuously opposed allowing alcohol sales to start at 11 a.m. Sundays.
He asked city attorneys to research a ban on all-night dance parties called raves.
Foster was one of only two council members to support a citywide curfew for young people. He supported a proposal to fine musicians $500 for every time they cursed during a concert at a city park.
And Foster attempted to derail the city's human rights ordinance to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
But, even critics point out, Foster is not always predictable. In 2000, he voted to sue Bayfront Medical Center on the grounds that the hospital's participation in a regional health alliance wrongly requires it to follow elements of Catholic doctrine — including a prohibition on abortion.
Foster, who is anti-abortion except for medical necessity, said his decision was based on the constitutional separation between church and state, not his upbringing. Foster said as a council member, his role was to set policy. As mayor, it will be to implement the council's policy.
"I don't intend to pass my judgment or my idea of decency upon the city," Foster said.
In 2007, after he had left office, Foster wrote a letter to the Pinellas County School Board regarding the teaching of evolution. It said, in part, that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution helped Adolf Hitler rise to power in Nazi Germany.
"Evolution gives our kids an excuse to believe in natural selection and survival of the fittest, which leads to a belief that they are superior over the weak," Foster wrote. "This is a slippery slope."
Foster's pastor at Starkey Road Baptist Church in Seminole, Jerry Lancaster, says it's troubling that Foster is expected to accept other people's beliefs when they won't accept his.
"I regret that somehow today if you have beliefs about something, and you strongly believe in those things, some people condemn that," Lancaster said.
But Foster is more complicated than just his moral beliefs.
In his time on council, Foster also was one of the more aggressive members when it came to cutting city budgets and seeking out new streams of revenue.
He pushed for putting advertisements on city garbage trucks as a way to make money. He wanted to sell advertising on the city's television station, too, until he was told the city could not.
Foster opposed raises for City Council members at least three times while on council, and voted against awarding council members city retirement benefits. Though the measure passed, Foster decided not to accept the retirement benefit.
He also tried to limit the money the mayor could spend without City Council approval.
As mayor, Foster said, he not only would require the city to justify increased expenditures, but he would mandate departments explain reasons for maintaining historic spending levels.
"The city needs that badly," said former City Council member Bob Kersteen, who is supporting Foster. "Three deputy mayors? Nuh-uh. Maybe need one. Tampa does it with one. Manatee County does it with two. Bill is willing to listen."
Foster quietly has built a substantial coalition of city and neighborhood leaders. Kersteen and Dr. Ed Carlson are targeting neighborhoods in west St. Petersburg, former City Council Bea Griswold is expecting to help with voters in north St. Petersburg and former council member Virginia Littrell could bolster efforts in the Old Northeast.
Foster also has a bloc of key supporters in the African-American community, including former council member Earnest Williams and neighborhood activists Charles Payne and Theresa "Mamma Tee" Lassiter.
The strong list of endorsements could make up for what could be perceived as a disadvantage: Through the first three months of 2009, Foster raised about $19,000 — less than a fifth of what fundraising leader Deveron Gibbons pulled in. Foster says his early fundraising is not a concern.
"Bill wants to help all people," said Lassiter, a Foster supporter who often is critical of city government. "They use this phrase, 'seamless city,' I think he really wants to do it."