ST. PETERSBURG — Subdued and underfunded, Karl Nurse was the underdog in his first two failed attempts at public office.
With less than seven weeks before the District 6 primary, the well connected City Council member has become the pack leader, amassing a campaign chest that dwarfs the competition's and carving out a list of supporters that reads like a who's who of St. Petersburg politics.
It's a carefully charted bid for validation set in motion by Nurse's controversial appointment to the City Council in April 2008. Nurse, who is white, was appointed over a group of black applicants, prompting some outrage in a district that had been represented by an African-American for nearly 30 years.
Nurse took the acrimony to heart. Days after he was sworn in, he set out door to door to court critics and gain a 15-month head start on his rivals.
But the election won't be a cake walk.
Nurse, 54, has drawn two opponents, cornering him into a primary battle that likely won't knock him out of the general election, but demands attention all the same.
Candidate Derrick Frohne, 24, has been a nearly invisible presence.
Challenger Vel Thompson, 51, is a former manager of the city's neighborhood team who is still celebrated by neighborhood leaders who once leaned on her to guide them through City Hall bureaucracy.
"She follows through," said supporter Bill Hornbeck, a lawyer Thompson persuaded to take on pro bono cases for low-income homeowners while working for the city. "She just doesn't try to refer matters to other people and then walk away. She stays involved."
In recent weeks, Thompson has sought out meetings with neighborhood leaders to make her case and scored the endorsement of former City Council member David Welch, a notable voice in Midtown politics.
The only black candidate in the race, Thompson could swoop up the votes of those still peeved by Nurse's appointment.
In District 6, 54 percent of voters are black, 37 percent are white.
So far, Thompson has refrained from alluding to race.
"Anybody going into a political campaign pulling the race card is going to hurt himself or herself," said Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP branch, located in the district. "Talk about the issues."
Is Thompson a serious contender?
Time will tell.
Her background has troubled spots. In 2006, while working as a manager for City Hall, she forged a supervisor's signature on an insurance form to claim unearned benefits, according to city records. Eventually, she was fired for misconduct after she repeatedly disrespected her supervisors and spoke publicly as a city employee at volunteer events without her supervisor's permission.
Thompson claimed she did have permission, but was dismissed because her supervisor did not like her.
Fundraising could be a problem. Thompson raised less than $400 between April and June.
Nurse, meanwhile, raised $15,716 and secured endorsements from Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, the Pinellas Stonewall Democrats, the Sierra Club, the Pinellas Realtors Organization and Mayor Rick Baker, a former rival. His campaign manager, Darden Rice, also has the advantage of having nearly won the district's 2005 election.
District 6 is a sprawling, diverse enclave that spans Albert Whitted Municipal Airport, Lakewood Estates, Coquina Key and Mirror Lake.
Midtown, the heart of the city's black community, is easily the district's neediest area. Its biggest issues are crime and vacant properties.
There have been 1,483 violent crimes in Midtown through May this year, compared with 1,364 during the same period the year before. More than 300 homes sit empty, the bulk of the city's 544 vacant properties.
Business owner Lillian Baker doesn't know Thompson. But she is unimpressed by Nurse, who she said came across as clueless about the area's crime and housing troubles during a recent 16th Street South Business Association meeting.
"He is not visible out here," said Baker, who owns a medical clothing store. "I have a problem with that."
Nurse's many supporters, however, describe him as an agent of change. He pushed Baker to apply for federal dollars to hire five more police officers, called on the City Council to televise all of its discussions and rallied for curbside recycling.
"He is always looking out for, actually, the overall city interests," said Jack Tunstill, chairman of the Albert Whitted advisory committee. "I am consistently impressed by his thoughtfulness."
Still, it remains to be seen how the candidates differ on policy.
And that could make all the difference.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.