Admire him or scorn him, Goliath Davis is an undeniable force in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — They could talk about his credentials: the master's degree and the Ph.D.

They could talk about the local kid who grew up to be police chief, whom the mayor begged not to retire, to come to work at City Hall instead.

But when it comes to Goliath "Go" Davis III, that's not what people talk about in St. Petersburg.

Feelings for Davis run much deeper than that.

To many, "Go" is the city's indispensable man, the go-to man with the endless connections. The rest aren't really sure what he does.

He's eyed with either great appreciation or deep suspicion. There's no middle ground, especially in an election year.

Mayoral candidates Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster have sparred with Davis in the past, and have said they don't think the city needs deputy mayors.

Besides police Chief Chuck Harmon, no other public official has faced the kind of scrutiny Davis has on the campaign trail. Questions range from the pointed (Just what does the deputy mayor for Midtown economic development do anyway?) to the ridiculous (Does he secretly run the Police Department?).

Why the hard feelings?

Some of it stems from past political wars. Some comes from Davis' time as police chief. And some of it undoubtedly comes from his being one of the most accomplished and visible black men in a city with an uneasy racial history.

"Critics think I look at things in terms of black and white," said Davis, 58. "I think in terms of what's right and what's wrong."

• • •

In 2000, Mayor Rick Baker campaigned hard in Midtown, a 5.5-square-mile area south of downtown. The neighborhoods were mostly poor, mostly black, and widely disenfranchised.

After his victory, Baker hired Davis to help keep his promise to revive Midtown.

Davis developed four key goals: build basic amenities like a library, a post office, a grocery store and a bank.

The James Weldon Johnson Branch Library opened in 2002.

A post office and Sweetbay Supermarket opened in 2005; and this year GTE Federal Credit Union broke ground.

The Royal Theater became a Boys & Girls Club. Mercy Hospital became the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center. The Seaboard Coast Line Railroad Station became the St. Petersburg Clay Co.

"I don't think we could have done that without him," Baker said.

Davis has a staff of 11, and a budget of roughly $1.2 million — which he said makes his department one of the city's smallest.

It helps keep his staff nimble, he said. "We do more with less than you can shake a stick at."

His reach extends beyond Midtown.

When police made national headlines for slashing tents to disperse the homeless in 2007, Davis helped create Pinellas Hope.

The following year, he reached out to calm protesters during the Republican presidential debate.

"He's smooth and intelligent, he listens well, and he's persuasive," said former police Chief Mack Vines. "One of his strengths is putting people together, getting consensus and coming to a conclusion."

Davis makes $152,736 a year as deputy mayor, on top of his police pension.

He also works at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

While he once taught a criminology course, he now earns $12,000 a year to be a senior adviser for community affairs.

USF interim regional chancellor Margaret Sullivan said Davis helps her with outreach efforts and spends his nights and weekends helping prospective students get admitted.

"He works 20 hours a day," she said. "Goliath works all the time."

• • •

Police chiefs regularly court controversy in St. Petersburg.

Still, Davis' four-year tenure stands out as a tumultuous time in the Police Department.

When he took over in 1997, the department was divided and in disarray. The ouster of one chief inflamed racial tensions. Another chief's experimental policing, some believe, left the city unprepared for the 1996 disturbances.

Davis said he tried to restore discipline and traditional policing methods. He banned cursing and shorts for officers and enforced a strict chase policy.

"I believe Go needed to do exactly what he did," said Harmon, who worked under Davis.

Davis and his agency were the subject of about a dozen lawsuits, most unsuccessful, filed by former officers and police unions. They accused Davis of unfair and inconsistent discipline, and of holding a grudge.

"The deal with Go was if you were with him, you were 100 percent with him," said former union attorney William LauBach. "If you crossed him he was going to get you."

James Sheehan is a lawyer who twice sued Davis and the department.

Years later, the adversaries bonded. In retrospect, Sheehan said, much of what Davis endured then was more about the city's political and racial strife than Davis himself.

"Here comes this strong African-American man who's doing what he believes is the right thing," Sheehan said. "If Go Davis was a white man and he became police chief, those feelings about him would not have been the same."

• • •

In the present, criticism of Davis' role in Midtown is more pointed.

In two years as president of the 16th Street Business Association, Catherine Weaver said she counted 20 businesses that closed.

Eventually, she closed her art gallery because the district didn't attract enough visitors. She blamed crime and panhandlers for chasing them away.

"You are supposed to be doing economic development," she said of Davis. "How are you helping the small businesses when they are going out of business?"

Community activist Sharon Russ, who briefly ran for mayor this year, said it's hard to celebrate Midtown achievements.

Building infrastructure isn't enough if services don't come with it, she said.

To her, all Davis has done is develop Midtown to the benefit of an elite group of black entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, she said, many neighborhoods remain mired in crime, poverty and dysfunction.

"He had the authority to organize this community and take it back," she said. "He dropped the ball."

Others think Davis' accomplishments are more than just brick and mortar, that he's helped the black community connect with City Hall.

"Goliath has been one to help build that bridge," said Pastor Clarence Williams of Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church. "Because of him a lot of people feel like, wait a minute, there may be some people in City Hall that will work with us."

• • •

So what's next for Davis?

Both Foster and Ford were critical of Davis when he was police chief and they were on the City Council. While running for mayor, both have said they'll do away with the city's three deputy mayor positions.

But would either keep Davis in a different role? Would Davis even want to stay?

Ford created controversy when she used the acronym H.N.I.C. — which in its best translation stands for "head Negro in charge" — when answering a question about Davis during a recent radio interview.

Ford said she was simply quoting a black professor's theory about black leaders who claim to speak for the community. She said it wasn't directed at Davis.

But an irked Davis said the incident raises questions about her fitness for office.

As for Foster, he refused to pose for a campaign photo with Davis and other black leaders.

Foster said he didn't want to put city employees in a bad position. His offer to pose with non-employees didn't fly.

If he does have to go, Davis said, he will miss public service. Getting up at 4 a.m., beating everyone to the office so he can get things done when it's quiet. He'll miss all the meetings and phone calls, day and night.

His only wish is that the next mayor lets his work continue.

"As Midtown goes," Davis said. "So goes the city."

Goliath Davis

Here's a look at Goliath Davis' history in St. Petersburg:

1969: Graduates from St. Petersburg Senior High School.

1973: Graduates from Rollins College in Winter Park with a bachelor's degree.

1973: Hired by the St. Petersburg Police Department as a public safety agent.

1974: Graduates from the police academy and is sworn in as a police officer.

1977: Finishes his master's degree at USF.

1979: Finishes his studies as a doctoral student in philosophy at FSU and returns to the force.

1980: Promoted to division chief of training and research by Chief Mack Vines.

1984: Promoted to deputy chief.

1989: Named assistant chief.

1997: Mayor David Fischer appoints him to become the city's first black chief of police.

2001: Retires and becomes deputy mayor for economic development in Midtown.

Admire him or scorn him, Goliath Davis is an undeniable force in St. Petersburg 10/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 11:29pm]

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