ST. PETERSBURG — Don McRae, St. Petersburg's first African-American city manager who presided over a period of racial tumult in the city in the 1990s, died Sunday after a long illness. He was 78.
A St. Petersburg native who served multiple tours in Vietnam as an Army helicopter pilot and retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel, Mr. McRae returned to St. Petersburg in 1972, working first for the police department and later in the city's leadership.
While his accomplishments largely transpired behind the scenes, Mr. McRae is best remembered for the very public events that surrounded the 1992 firing of popular police Chief Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger.
Mr. McRae, who was at the time interim city manager, said Curtsinger acted as a rogue administrator with little regard for city processes or racial sensitivities.
Specifically, Mr. McRae said Curtsinger showed bad judgment when he termed a black major's promotion "affirmative action," and said there were more qualified candidates. Curtsinger also suspended cultural diversity training for officers because some white officers said the instruction was offensive.
Mr. McRae's dismissal of Curtsinger touched off protests across parts of the city and produced significant political fallout. More than 18,000 people signed petitions asking the city to rehire Curtsinger. The ouster of the chief further polarized a city electorate already divided over downtown revitalization projects and the taxes to support them.
Curtsinger sued the city and settled for $585,000, then ran for mayor in 1993 and nearly ousted incumbent David Fischer. That year, city voters also decided to abolish the city manager form of government and make the mayor the city's top executive.
Up until his death, Mr. McRae defended his decision to fire Curtsinger, arguing it was in the city's best interests.
"When things got very tense, he was calm and very professional," Fischer said. "There was no rhetoric, no outburst. It was really done by the book, you might say. I think we were lucky to have Don in that position at that time."
Added current Mayor Rick Baker:
"Don was a very steady hand," Baker said. "He was, I think, very calm during it all. He knew there was going to be a significant backlash. But he did what he thought was the right thing to do for the future of the city. And I think time has proven that what he did was right."
Curtsinger, who is now living in Clermont, was not available for comment, said his wife, Barbara.
The cause of Mr. McRae's death was not known, but family friend and former police Chief Goliath Davis said McRae suffered from an illness for some time. He is survived by his wife, Josephine.
Davis described McRae as "eternally optimistic. Very committed and very dedicated. Very loyal."
McRae replaced Robert Obering as interim city manager after questions were raised over a land deal in 1991. He was the city's highest-ranking African-American official during his nine-month stint as interim city manager, later becoming chief of staff under Fischer. Described by the St. Petersburg Times as a "low-key political lightning rod," he retired from political life in 2001. He took over the family-owned McRae Funeral Home.
"I would have gone to war with him," said City Council member Herb Polson, who worked in City Hall with McRae for more than two decades. Polson himself served in the Navy. "As a military guy, he was somebody I would trust."
Davis said McRae never considered his importance to the political or racial history of the city.
"I think that's what was so wonderful about the man. He never thought in those terms," Davis said. "He was a unifier. He believed in people. He never sought a lot of attention or recognition for what he did."
McRae's decision to remove Curtsinger met with strong resistance both within the police force and in the community. The decision weighed on him for months, friends said.
"He felt deeply he was doing the right thing," said David Welch, a City Council member from 1981-1989 and again from 1993-1997. "There was a lot of confusion in the city of St. Petersburg at that time. He felt someone had to step forward and do what was right."