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How the St. Petersburg mayor's race was won

ST. PETERSBURG — Poll after poll showed Bill Foster losing to Kathleen Ford.

He decided to heed the advice of many: He went negative in the waning days of the St. Petersburg mayor's race.

Foster TV commercials and mailers began to portray Ford as a "divider" and Foster as a "uniter."

The tactic won him the election, Foster said.

"We didn't poll well until we started running that message," Foster said Wednesday, a day after he was elected mayor with 53 percent of the vote. "We knew that we had to focus on consensus building and our ability to bring people together and that's what we did."

Voting records support his theory. Early mail ballots had Foster slightly ahead, with only 50.5 percent of the vote. But he emerged as the clear victor once Election Day ballots were tabulated and 11 precincts that had been leaning toward Ford fell his way.

His election is the latest win for the city's majority black neighborhoods, which have sided with the victor in every recent mayoral campaign. While Ford, 52, made some early inroads, her efforts fell short.

Foster, 46, started his first day as the mayor-elect at 6 a.m. with a handful of interviews. He stopped by City Hall and thanked city workers for their service. He fielded congratulatory e-mails and telephone calls. Mid-afternoon, he said he planned to take a nap.

It was an anticlimactic finish to a heated campaign that pitted Ford's promise for reform against Foster's vow to continue steady progress.

The black vote

Foster and Ford battled passionately for the city's black vote. They attended Sunday services at prominent black churches, made the rounds at popular black businesses and plastered their signs along the city's black business corridors.

But election records suggest the war was Foster's to win.

In the weeks leading up to the general election, 55.5 percent of voters in Childs Park and Midtown cast mail ballots for Foster.

Days after Ford used a racially charged acronym (Head Negro in Charge) while discussing Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, Foster went on to collect 63 percent of Election Day votes in those areas.

Still, Foster said he didn't think the comment is what cost Ford the election.

"Once in a while, each one of us would stick a foot in our mouths," he said. "The spin on each side, I don't necessarily think it determined our fate."

Foster also may have benefited from low voter turnout. In Childs Park, where he picked up 63 percent of the vote, 15 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

"We can't say that the people have spoken," said Abdul Karim Ali, founder of the African American Voter Research & Education Committee. "The silent majority did not show up, and certainly in the Midtown area, no one should be very pleased with that."

Ford could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

After her concession speech Tuesday night, Ford said overcoming the media had been her campaign's biggest hurdle. The St. Petersburg Times' editorial board endorsed Foster.

"But that's all a part of it," she said. "I know it and accepted it."

Asked what role her use of the HNIC acronym may have played in her defeat, a smiling Ford walked away.

St. Petersburg NAACP president Ray Tampa said he, too, thinks Foster's focus on temperament hurt Ford's campaign.

"It was not a true message, nevertheless, it was a constant message," Tampa said.

Wooing the westside

Foster's path to victory veered slightly from the course set by his political predecessors.

Westside neighborhoods traditionally have supported the candidate who offered change. They overwhelmingly backed Ford in her failed 2001 mayoral bid. Ford regularly attended neighborhood meetings and vowed to give the area a voice in policy discussions.

She mostly won the region this time around, but her support was not as strong.

Foster managed to cobble together some support from neighborhood activists and Tampa Bay Rays fans wary of Ford's stance against a new baseball stadium.

Lance Lubin, president of the Eagle Crest Neighborhood Association, said he was a diehard Democrat who traditionally could not vote for a conservative Republican like Foster. But he found Foster friendly and honest and spread the word.

"Every time he got in front of a westside crowd he said, 'Look the west side has been left out,' " said Lubin. "He was trying to be the west side candidate."

Insider support

Foster's greatest asset was likely his relationships with the city's political and business leaders, who overwhelmingly supported him.

For instance, Larry Williams, a former council member and two-time mayoral candidate, walked Foster through his neighborhood last month.

After Ford's first TV commercial aired the weekend before the election, Williams pointed out its antistadium message to friends at church. Those who were unsure about voting seemed energized, he said.

But, in the final days of the campaign, no elected official rallied harder for Foster than Mayor Rick Baker, a longtime Ford adversary who trumped her in the 2001 race.

"Rick and Bill were inseparable crisscrossing Midtown in the past couple of weeks," said council member Jamie Bennett, who lost to Ford and Foster in the primary.

Foster said he realizes his victory is not a voter mandate. He vowed to reach out to Ford and her supporters.

"I'd like to see us all on the same page working toward a common goal on Jan. 2," he said, giving himself two months to bridge any divisions before he is sworn in.

Of Ford, he added, "She has earned a seat at the table."

Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8846.

A look at two races

The Times compared Kathleen Ford's 2001 race against Rick Baker with Tuesday's results.

. Ford won 46 of 111 precincts in her race against Bill Foster, compared with 56 of 106 precincts in 2001. Still, she won a greater percentage of overall votes, 47 percent compared with 43 in 2001.

. Foster cleaned up in Midtown and north of Lake Maggiore, but he didn't do as well as Baker. In eight Midtown precincts, Baker won 95 percent of the vote.

. Ford was winning 11 precincts in mail ballots that she lost to Foster at the polls.

. For an interactive map, go to elections.tampabay.com.

How the St. Petersburg mayor's race was won 11/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 5, 2009 5:14pm]

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