ST. PETERSBURG — Deveron Gibbons was living in Los Angeles in 1996 watching his hometown and old neighborhood burning on national TV amid racial unrest. Before long, Florida's secretary of labor and former education commissioner was on the phone.
"Hey, Bubba, you need to come home," Doug Jamerson said, using the nickname for his 22-year-old nephew. "Dave Fischer's in trouble because of these riots, and he needs your help. There are people on the ground you need to be talking to."
Gibbons took leave from his Los Angeles County government job for the role he's seized much of his life: political fixer pulling levers from the lowest to the highest levels.
Gibbons, whose grandmother was Fischer's longtime maid, joined the campaign and worked his many contacts to help re-elect the mayor. Then he went to work as a mayoral trouble-shooter at Fischer's City Hall before leaving for more lucrative work.
Now, at 36, Gibbons is aiming for mayor himself.
Disarmingly charming and well connected to circles ranging from Republican Tallahassee politicos, to black churches to corporate board rooms around Tampa Bay, Gibbons has already beaten everybody else in raising money, shattering past records. He's the first African-American with a real shot at becoming mayor of St. Petersburg, and in a crowded field where roughly one in five voters is black, that in itself could be a ticket into the two-person runoff election.
Plus he has a heck of story: A kid from the inner city fends off the crack epidemic that swept up many of his neighbors and friends, goes off to college, works hard — and, unlike so many other bright stars, returns home.
Last year, the Amscot Financial vice president finished building a 7,000-square-foot mansion on 18th Avenue S in the heart of some of St. Petersburg's poorest neighborhoods (It took a year for him to clear a $95,000 contractor's lien on the property). Growing up nearby, Gibbons said he was tired of African-Americans kids seeing only athletes and drug dealers achieve wealth. He wanted to show what hard work and responsibility can produce.
"We need someone who was born here, who was raised in the streets, who understands people and business. He's young, has fresh ideas, worked with two great mayors — Rick Baker and Dave Fischer," said restaurateur Mike Atwater, whose endorsement is among the most coveted in St. Petersburg politics. "It's time for the Old Northeast community to spread the wealth, and for this great city to break down some barriers and walls."
Yet for all those who herald Gibbons' bio and potential, many also see a young glad-hander in an ill-fitting suit spewing vague answers about his agenda. Love the guy but hard to see him as mayor, say the skeptics.
Gibbons has served on a host of community boards, including the Housing Authority and St. Petersburg College. But he has never served in elected office, and can point to no significant management experience.
"This election will really come down to ideas," says the candidate who offers few ideas.
Gibbons rarely makes time to answer reporters' questions, he has zero issues or priorities listed on his campaign Web site, and at candidate forums usually forgoes specifics in favor of platitudes and anecdotes. Not that his stories don't grab people.
Asked at a recent candidate forum about crime in Bartlett Park, Gibbons talked up the need for zero-tolerance law enforcement and recounted the murder of a man named Larry Waller, with whom Gibbons was playing basketball.
"A guy runs up and shoots him. In the head. I'm standing there, 11 years old," Gibbons told the silent room from a dais dominated by former City Council members. "A lot of people that are up here have had the opportunity to serve and you've seen the results — same old, same old."
Never mind that Gibbons was 17 when Waller was killed, the point was made. Probably nobody running better understands crime in the city than Gibbons.
Gibbons, raised by a prominent Baptist preacher and Pinellas teacher, has never been married, but has two sons, 13 and 3. He won't discuss that part of his life, calling it irrelevant to the campaign.
After working for the city, Gibbons lobbied in Tallahassee several years and before joining Amscot in 2004. The company, with annual revenue around $150 million, was wary of bad publicity about payday lenders elsewhere in the country. Gibbons' job is to make sure people understand that Amscot, governed by the strictest payday regulations in the country, is one of the good guys.
Gibbons said he's proud to help people get credit through Amscot. He also has taken the lead in expanding the company's bill-paying service, working with local governments, utilities and retailers.
"Deveron is able to talk with people from all walks of life," said Amscot chairman Ian MacKechnie. "You've got to be careful when you mention an idea to him, because it'll probably happen pretty quickly, He's someone who gets things done."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8241.