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Two lawyers in the St. Petersburg mayoral race tout their legal background

ST. PETERSBURG — Kathleen Ford the lawyer in many ways mirrors the image of Kathleen Ford the mayoral candidate. Tenacious. And detailed.

When a home builder filed a 14-point, three-page lawsuit against one of her clients, Ford fired back with a 24-page, 123-point countersuit.

Likewise, Bill Foster the lawyer mimics the perception of Bill Foster the mayoral candidate. Steady. And dependable.

When Midtown activist Theresa Lassiter asked for help, Foster showed up at Shirley's Soul Food restaurant to provide free legal advice to those who walked through the door.

Ford and Foster, the two lawyers running for mayor in a field of 10, are counting on their legal backgrounds to boost their political aspirations.

Ford, 52, says her expertise understanding contracts makes her the best candidate to sit across the table from the Tampa Bay Rays during potential new stadium negotiations.

And Foster, 46, says his work as a mediator uniquely qualifies him to handle some of the complex problems that will face the city in the next four years.

"A lot of what the city does involves constitutional liberties and contracts," Foster said. "To have a broad knowledge in those two fields is helpful."

Two similar histories

Though styles vary, Ford and Foster share a common narrative.

Both attended small, private law schools — Ford graduated from the South Texas College of Law in Houston, Foster from the Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham.

Both passed the Florida Bar exam on their first try.

Both work in small, family-run practices. Foster works alongside his father, Ford alongside her husband. Neither has a disciplinary record with the Florida Bar.

Both ramped down their legal careers for a part-time job on the City Council. And both are wrestling with what to do with their practice should they be elected mayor in November.

Ford, a former nurse, initially worked as a personal injury consultant and reviewed medical records before becoming a part-time trial lawyer in 1992. She spent the early part of her career handling insurance defense cases.

After time on City Council and a run for mayor in 2001 put her legal work on hold, she returned to practice in 2003 with her husband, Harvey Ford.

Now, she focuses on commercial litigation, and her husband focuses on transaction business — real estate closings, wills, trusts and other paperwork deals.

She reported earning $35,635 in 2008, according to financial disclosure forms required of mayoral candidates.

Ford says that's not indicative of how much she's working. Rather it's a sign of the tough economy her clients face.

"Our clients are having a hard time paying," Ford said. "We're working with them."

In 2006, according to court records, she represented Jabil Circuit chief executive officer Timothy Main after Main was sued for terminating a contract to construct a $3 million home.

The case was settled before a trial. Ford said she couldn't disclose the settlement.

"I came to Kathleen through Harvey," said Main, who has known the Fords for 15 years. "Kathleen can be very tough and very direct. She represented me well."

Looking past the law

Foster likes the law, he says. But he always has been itching to leave it for a career in public administration.

In 1991, three years after passing the Florida Bar exam, Foster applied to become St. Petersburg's city manager. He failed to make the first cut.

Two years later he ran for City Council. He lost.

In 1998, Foster was appointed to serve on the City Council, where he remained until 2007.

"The law degree was more for the education," Foster said. "A practice allowed me to keep the lights on and put food on the table. But the first opportunity I had to get out, I took it."

Foster, whose practice is on Fourth Street just north of downtown, specializes in elder care. A majority of his litigation involves probate cases: the handling of estates and wills.

He says he also has been given the power to make life-ending decisions for more than 100 clients. He said he has given the order at least a dozen times that resulted in a person's death.

"I stayed by the bedside every time and watched the monitors go down to zero," said Foster, who reported an income of $180,240 in 2008.

In 2007, court records show, he represented a man who was trying to remove his domestic partner from a deed on a house they purchased in Madeira Beach. The man, Kevin Fritzsch, said he bought the house himself, but put his partner's name on the deed to further the relationship.

When the relationship soured, Fritzsch went to court to argue that the house should be his.

It's an interesting case for Foster, a conservative Republican who won't go back to the city's gay rights parade unless the event becomes less "adult oriented."

"People need legal representation," said Foster. "I don't care who they are."

Fritzsch, who lives in New Jersey, could not be reached for comment.

Several lawyers involved in cases with Ford or Foster and contacted by the St. Petersburg Times were unwilling to discuss the candidates' abilities and demeanor for this story.

Dealing with the Rays

The two lawyers have drastically different views on a legal issue likely to come up in the next mayor's first term.

The Tampa Bay Rays have a contract with the city to play in St. Petersburg through the 2027 season.

While both Foster and Ford said they would require a voter referendum to approve any new stadium, Ford thinks the city's contract with the team makes a new ballpark unnecessary.

If the Rays attempted to leave, she said, a judge could stop it.

The procedural move, called an injunction, would require the team to honor its original agreement with the city.

Foster says it won't happen.

"If they want to leave, it's just going to come down to money," said Foster. "Every team that left a city had a contract."

Ford says Foster's position, which is shared by other major candidates including Deveron Gibbons, puts the city in a weaker negotiating position.

"If they were a real litigator, you probably wouldn't do that," Ford said. "You don't give away your position. It shows the naivete of some of those candidates. It also shows an unfamiliarity with the law."

The contract, agreed to in 1995, says that if the Rays breach the agreement, the city can sue in court and can seek an injunction to keep the Rays playing at Tropicana Field.

If a court refuses to order an injunction, the Rays would owe any bond debt still outstanding on the construction of the dome. As of now, that's between $70 million and $80 million.

"The fact that both parties agree that the city can seek an injunction if the Rays decide to move is pretty incredible power," Ford said. "You have to prove it, but if both parties agree, it's not that hard. Or theoretically it shouldn't be."

>>Fast facts

On the Web

Follow the mayor's race at elections.tampabay.com.

Key dates

The primary is Sept. 1. The general election is Nov. 3.

Two lawyers in the St. Petersburg mayoral race tout their legal background 08/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 12:20pm]
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