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Deveron Gibbons, Bill Foster battle for loyalties in south St. Petersburg

Theresa Lassiter sits at Shirley’s Soul Food, where dueling campaign signs declare loyalty to both St. Petersburg mayoral candidates Deveron Gibbons and Bill Foster.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Theresa Lassiter sits at Shirley’s Soul Food, where dueling campaign signs declare loyalty to both St. Petersburg mayoral candidates Deveron Gibbons and Bill Foster.

ST. PETERSBURG — There are battle signs at Shirley's Soul Food diner on 34th Street S.

One says Deveron Gibbons for Mayor.

The other Bill Foster for Mayor.

Proprietor Shirley Tigg said she agreed to let Foster hang a sign on her diner's pole facing the street. Foster has long given free legal help in the back of Shirley's. They've been friends for 10 years.

When Gibbons asked if he could put up a sign, she said sure, just not on the pole.

But there was nowhere else to put the sign, his campaign manager claimed. So there it went.

The main parties shrugged it off.

Foster: "I'm not running a sign campaign. My initial thought was honestly, poor Shirley. My heart really went out to her because I just figured she had a lot of community pressure."

Gibbons: "Shirley Tigg is a friend of mine. I think you ask your friends to support you."

Tigg: "I don't mind. It's not the sign that's going to bring any votes, it's the person."

Outspoken activist and ardent Foster supporter Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter was not so sure.

She fired off an angry text message to Gibbons about the placement of his sign Wednesday morning.

Armed with a Bible and ethics textbook inside Shirley's that day, she said the signs say a lot about African-American votes in the south side of the city — a crucial election battleground.

"They feel like every time, we're going to be the deciding factor. We're either going to make it or break it for them," she said. "I understand that, but it's time for us to go by people and their moral background."

• • •

About one in five St. Petersburg voters is black, and those votes can be vital.

In 2001's mayoral race, Rick Baker won more than 90 percent of the vote in three key black precincts and 82 percent in a fourth. He surged ahead of challenger Kathleen Ford when returns from Pinellas Point and Lakewood came through. In previous elections, David Fischer walloped Bill Klein and Curt Curtsinger in predominantly black precincts.

"It's a huge concern to anybody running for office," said Ray Tampa, NAACP St. Petersburg branch president. "You want to get as many votes as you can get in order to win. Getting the lion's share of African-American votes will put you over the top."

Candidates have displayed their faces and names in black neighborhoods, community centers and churches. Eight of them gathered for a forum at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum last month.

Foster and Gibbons eat regularly at Shirley's, talking with the diners, hearing their concerns.

Dr. John Evans, pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on 31st Street South, has had several candidates visit his church.

"We are conscious of the race," he said. "We don't allow it to overshadow our religious purposes as a church. We always have opened our doors to candidates to come in and address us."

Candidate Scott Wagman has visited more than 40 African-American churches during his campaign, he said.

"Staying the whole time, not just a fly by," he said. "The response every time afterward when I've chatted with people is wonderful."

Still, he's skeptical of the notion of a collective black vote.

"I think it's a fallacy to think there is an African-American vote," he said. "My experience is that African-Americans have individual views and positions."

Gibbons, the only African-American in a field of 10, has built a sizable army of supporters — 41 local black ministers, former local NAACP head and current state Rep. Darryl Rouson, African-American legislators state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris and former state Sen. Les Miller.

His history also may give him an edge with black voters in south St. Petersburg, where he grew up. But he downplays race.

"I'm trying to represent all citizens," he said. "The African-American community is important. I think they want the same things as any other citizens across the city."

Mike Atwater, owner of Atwater's Cafeteria in Midtown, said it is naive to say race isn't a factor. He thinks Gibbons would be a good role model to struggling young back men.

"Once we break the barrier of never having an African-American mayor, it's done. It's something of the past," he said. "But it gives kids the choice of saying, 'Yes we can. Yes, it can happen now.' We have broken the barrier of saying that this is a racist or white man's position. This is the 21st century."

He allows only Deveron Gibbons signs at his restaurant.

• • •

If you ask Lassiter, it shouldn't be about black or white.

"I wish African-Americans would learn to become colorblind," she said. "While I want to support my people, I go by the person and what they have done."

She points to the free legal help Foster has given. The basketball games he plays with black youths.

Signs and appearances aside, candidates need to focus on real issues that black voters face, said Darryl Rouson.

"It's more than showing up at a black church on Sunday," he said. "It's working with neighborhoods. It's connecting with the fears and concerns of black residents. It's walking Childs Park and Harbordale — not driving, but walking. It's looking at the problems and being determined to do something about it and bring positive change."

As for Shirley Tigg, the signs at her diner remain for two candidates — one black, one white.

Who does she support?

She won't say.

Times staff writer Aaron Sharockman and researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

. Fast facts

About the race

Ten candidates are currently running for St. Petersburg mayor. They are Jamie Bennett, Paul Congemi, Richard Eldridge, Kathleen Ford, Bill Foster, Deveron Gibbons, Alex Haak, Scott Wagman, Larry Williams and Ed Helm.

Key dates: The primary is Sept. 1. The general election is Nov. 3.

On the Web

For more about the mayoral candidates and their positions, go to tampabay.com/mayor.

Deveron Gibbons, Bill Foster battle for loyalties in south St. Petersburg 06/13/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 5:15pm]

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