Two mayoral candidates want to transcend race

ST. PETERSBURG — Bill Foster and Scott Wagman both want to be the city's first black mayor.

There is just one problem. They're both white.

And there are actually two African-Americans in the race, Deveron Gibbons and Sharon Russ.

But that doesn't faze Foster: "I want to be that. I want to be the city's first black mayor," the former council member said in a recent interview.

Foster compared himself to former President Bill Clinton, who was often referred to as the country's first black president for his connection to the African American community.

Foster and Wagman said their administrations would transcend race because they would equally represent all groups. Both candidates also recently expanded their roles in the local NAACP: Foster, a lawyer, will provide legal advice. Wagman, a real estate broker, offered his economic development expertise.

The racially tinged rhetoric points to the high-profile role the African-American community could play in deciding St. Petersburg's next mayor. More than 20 percent of city residents are black, and several past mayoral campaigns have been waged in the pews and prayer circles of local African-American churches.

"What I think is good about it is the candidates recognize the importance of the black community," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who has rallied for greater diversity within City Hall.

But not every candidate plans on dabbling in racial alchemy.

"This is just a silly way to start the campaign," said council member Jamie Bennett, who also has mayoral aspirations. "I'm sure they were having fun, and it's up to the black community to decide that, but I'm not going there."

The ethnic showdown kicked off at an NAACP event last week when Rouson discussed strides the black community made in 2008, the most significant being the election of the nation's first black president. St. Petersburg could elect its first black mayor, added Rouson, a tentative Gibbons supporter.

Foster approached Rouson afterward. "He said something like, 'I hope you were talking about me or can I be the first black mayor?' " Rouson recalled. "I said, 'If Bill Clinton could be the first black president, certainly you have the opportunity.' "

Wagman also lobbied Rouson. "I told him I want to be the first black mayor of St. Pete. How do I do that?" Wagman said.

Rouson jokingly suggested a generous douse of self-tanner, Wagman said.

The men's racial ambitions gave some African-Americans a good laugh.

"My brother said what?" said political activist Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter before bursting into giggles. "I like that. That's good."

Lassiter said she's seen Foster play basketball with teenagers in Midtown and give free legal advice to families. "He's gotten to understand what black people go through," she said.

Others were speechless.

"I know Bill has a very dry sense of humor, but I really don't know what to say to that," said County Commissioner Ken Welch, who is considering running for mayor.

NAACP president Ray Tampa said he hopes the campaign does not become race-centric: "We should judge candidates on their qualifications."

Russ, a minister, called the racial politicking shameful, but added she would support Foster if she dropped out. "A person should be judged on their character, not on their skin," she said.

Council member Wengay Newton, who is African-American, was not amused.

"It does offend me. For them to be a black mayor, they have to be of African-American descent," he said. "That's like me saying, 'I'm going to be the first white mayor. I'm going to be a friend to the white man.' That sounds stupid."

.Fast facts

The field so far

The mayor and at least four council seats will be up for grabs in the city election. Candidates have until July to qualify for the September primary. The mayoral candidates so far: Jamie Bennett, 56, a council member; Paul Congemi, 52, a retired builder; Bill Foster, 45, a lawyer; Deveron Gibbons, 35, a business executive; Sharon Russ, 48, a minister; and Scott Wagman, 55, a real estate broker.

Two mayoral candidates want to transcend race 01/07/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 6, 2009 12:26pm]

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