ST. PETERSBURG — Goliath Davis, one of the city's most influential African-Americans, declared former City Council member Kathleen Ford a viable candidate to lead the city.
"I think she has matured greatly as a politician," said Davis, who served as police chief, deputy mayor and senior administrator.
"I'm not opposed to her becoming mayor. She's extremely bright, hardworking and committed. She has qualities that distinguish her from (Mayor Bill) Foster."
While Davis stressed he has "not endorsed a candidate," his praise for Ford could help her win the city's African-American community — a voting block many regard as crucial to winning the city's top job.
Davis said he isn't praising Ford to retaliate against Foster for firing him in 2011 after he didn't attend a funeral for a fallen police officer. "I've been pretty quiet because I didn't want anyone to think I was angry about my firing. I've spent the majority of my life trying to build a community."
The support for Ford may surprise some after the 2009 mayor's race.
Ford imploded weeks before the election when she used the racially charged acronym HNIC, or Head Negro in Charge, while discussing Davis on a radio show. The blunder caused some people to label her a racist.
Davis said Monday that he doesn't believe she is.
Ford met with him in 2009 and recently to discuss the comment. She has been consistent in her explanations, Davis said, adding: "I refuse to call her a racist. I haven't found her to be untruthful."
Black voters account for nearly one-fifth of the electorate, but have had outsized influence because they have often voted as a near-monolithic block. The city's majority black neighborhoods have sided with the victor in most mayoral campaigns.
Former City Council member and state lawmaker Rick Kriseman also is running against Foster in the Aug. 27 primary, along with Paul Congemi and Anthony Cates.
Davis, once perceived as City Hall's unofficial liaison to the black community, said he won't make an endorsement until the field is set when qualifying ends June 24.
Kriseman said that he isn't deterred and that Davis told him he will make an endorsement in the future.
"I think the African-American community is looking at options they have available to them," he said. "I've heard a lot of dissatisfaction with the mayor."
Foster disagrees with Davis' opinion, but said Davis is entitled to it.
"His position in the mayor's race should come as no surprise to anyone," Foster said.
Ford could not immediately be reached for comment.
Davis said Monday he has one big issue with Foster: Midtown.
Former Mayor Rick Baker hired Davis in 2000 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 city invested millions in public money to help bring Sweetbay Supermarket to Tangerine Plaza in 2005. The project was viewed as the catalyst to revitalize the area.
Not any longer.
Sweetbay closed in February, leaving the plaza a ghost town. That angers Davis.
"Midtown has regressed under (Foster's) leadership," he said. "The economic-development initiatives have suffered."
He also criticized Foster for loosening the Police Department's pursuit policy and for an uptick in officer-involved shootings. He believes Foster is pandering to the police union, which supports him in the election.
"The Midtown community is law abiding," Davis said. "There is a great concern regarding some police tactics that are being employed."
Davis vows to become more active once the field of candidates narrows. Kriseman and Ford have both asked Davis for support.
One difference exists between them, Davis said: Ford already has a voter base from her two prior mayoral campaigns.
When asked if he would object to Kriseman leading the city, Davis replied: "My mantra is anybody but Foster."
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.