Thursday, April 26, 2018

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster reluctant to tout himself


Bill Foster rested his elbows on the dais and spun a pencil in his hand. He stared at the semicircle of City Council members and knew he had lost.

It was Sept. 13 of last year, and he had just pitched a fee for fire service to cover a nearly $9 million budget shortfall. More than two dozen people, some angry and shouting, had objected. They called it unfair, a regressive tax. Their protests went on for 98 minutes.

At last, the clerk called for the council to vote: 6-2 against.

The failure clung to the mayor. It became known as "Foster's fire fee," a misguided idea thwarted by the council's good sense. Newspaper editorials ripped him. Council members used it as an example of Foster's inability to work with them. Rick Kriseman, his challenger in the Nov. 5 mayor's race, has repeatedly referenced it.

Foster said many things that night. He presented the fee as equitable and tried, futilely, to defend it. But one thing Foster didn't say then, or any time since: It was not my idea.

Records show that council members, not Foster, requested that such a fee be considered at a workshop eight months earlier. This, the mayor never told the public. He never tried to deflect or share blame, in part because he believed it was the fairest way to raise revenue.

For a man now engaged in a fiercely contested re-election bid — down a single percentage point in a recent poll — his silence could seem confounding.

But it shouldn't.

Bill Foster is this city's highest ranking politician — and he might well be its worst. Why? Because Bill Foster doesn't want to do that part of the job.

He's reluctant to schmooze other elected officials. He doesn't sell grand visions. He resents having to convince people he deserves another four years.

During a nine-month campaign, the mayor has rarely, or ineffectively, promoted his achievements and kept hidden details that could have blunted some of the harshest criticisms leveled against him.

In stark contrast, Foster was known as perhaps the council's savviest member during his nine-year tenure. He liked seeing his name in print and got criticized for the attention. But politics, in those days, was a means to an end. He needed people to know who he was so that one day they would make him mayor.

"When you're mayor, you're there," he said recently. "It became all about the job and the performance."

Foster took office with a fundamental belief that his fate would be intertwined with the city he led. If St. Petersburg succeeds, he thought, I succeed.

He was wrong.

That same poll a month ago found that while 72 percent of voters believe the city is headed in the right direction, just 39 percent said they intended to vote for the man in charge.

• • •

Five months and one day after Foster became mayor, in perhaps his first big at-bat, he hit the ball well over the fence.

His proposal to ban street solicitation met with unanimous council support, and downtown was transformed seemingly overnight. People could walk to lunch without being hit up for change. Sidewalks cleared. Shop owners no longer complained that panhandlers were killing business.

But the move was staunchly opposed by charities that raised money on the streets, and by newspapers that used hawkers to sell weekend editions.

The Times even sued, saying the ban was a violation of its constitutional right to free speech.

Tish Elston, city administrator since 1999, called Foster's choice to move forward in the face of such opposition the single best example of his leadership.

"He's paid for that. There's always the potential that he'll pay with his position. He did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. He championed it. He led it. He owned it," she said. "If that's not leadership, then I don't know what it is."

The strange thing?

Outside of a reference in a TV ad, Foster rarely reminds voters how the city used to be and that he was responsible for the sweeping change.

Before the law passed, his daughter, Christine, then 19, offered some advice.

"You're doing this too early," she told her dad. "People aren't going to remember it."

• • •

On Jan. 24, 2011, Hydra Lacy Jr. shot and killed two St. Petersburg police officers who had come looking for him. The ferocious gunbattle also killed Lacy, who was hidden in an attic.

For Foster, two still-haunting controversies were born that day.

To retrieve Lacy from the attic, officers brought in heavy equipment to tear through the walls. Later that day, with Lacy dead, Foster ordered workers to raze the house and offered the public almost no explanation as to why.

Soon after, Goliath Davis III, then one of Foster's top officials and the city's most influential African-American leader, didn't attend the funerals of the two slain officers, but he did go to Lacy's. His decisions sparked a storm of criticism.

Then, 28 days after the shooting, another officer was killed. Foster ordered all of his Cabinet members to attend that funeral.

Davis refused. He later said the weight of past grief made the officers' services too much for him to bear. He talked of a childhood friend killed in the Vietnam War, a brother's death and, most notably, the loss 30 years earlier of Herbert Ray Sullivan, the last officer to be killed on duty.

Elston offered Davis a compromise: Show support by standing outside the church.

He declined and Foster fired him, severing what many saw as a crucial link between City Hall and St. Petersburg's black community. The mayor said little. He called it a personnel matter.

In recent months, Davis has become an outspoken Foster critic, vowing to do "whatever is necessary" to ensure the mayor is not re-elected.

Last week, in his office at City Hall, Foster pulled three photos and a funeral program from a desk drawer, items he had never shared publicly.

The photos show the Lacy home in the hours after the shootout. They depict a house in ruins: a roof ripped in half, piles of splintered wood, collapsing cinder-block walls.

The front of the funeral program shows a man wearing an officer's hat and these words: "A Celebration of Love for Horace L. Nero — 'Sarge.' " It was dated Aug. 20, 2008.

Nero, a retired city police officer, had died eight days earlier at the age of 71. The service's schedule, written inside, listed the speakers, and among them was the man who refused to attend the dead officers' funerals in 2011.

Why not share pictures of the house, which many would agree needed to be torn down?

Why not leak the program, which might have discredited one of his most powerful adversaries?

"At the time these things were relevant, we were still a city that was grieving," he said. "I didn't want to detract from that."

Why not later, as criticism swelled?

Foster shrugged. He searched for an answer. "Not about me," he said.

• • •

Bill Foster is no Rick Baker. It's a common refrain in City Hall and a comparison that makes the current mayor bristle.

Baker held a parade of news conferences to tout his successes; Foster holds monthly breakfasts to get face time with citizens. Baker went to events with a camera crew; Foster goes alone. Baker vetted issues with council members in private; Foster often avoids them.

That last point has become one of political significance.

Several times, Foster has done work in secret that surprised, even irked, council members.

Foster was instrumental in the creation of Pinellas Safe Harbor, a homeless shelter, but unveiled it without their input. Members repeatedly complain about his behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Tampa Bay Rays; and several didn't like it when they learned he was expanding the red-light camera program without telling them.

Foster hides some things, he said, to protect deals he fears they might leak to the media. For others, such as red-light cameras, he sees no reason to tell them because he doesn't need their permission to act.

Foster believes his job is to run the city, not to please the council — and he hasn't. Six endorsed Kriseman.

Still, Foster insists his dynamic with them is misunderstood. "There are some that I talk to more than others," he said. "That's always been the case. But I've always been able to count to five."

Foster has lost only one vote of any significance in the past 13 months: the fire fee.

• • •

Ask Foster's family why he doesn't promote or defend himself more deftly, and their answers sound redundant.

"That's just not how Bill thinks," said his wife, Wendy.

"He doesn't like to brag about his accomplishments," said his father, David.

"I wouldn't even call him a politician," said his daughter, Christine.

At different times, they've all urged him to be more aggressive.

Those who have followed Foster's campaign know he has done little to tout his successes, including his critical work to secure $5 million in public money that allowed the Salvador Dalí Museum to open on time.

Even the lambasting he has taken over the Rays negotiations, the failed Lens and the shuttered Sweetbay in Midtown were worsened by — if not mostly due to — his public relations mismanagement.

In 2011, Foster said he had a "secret plan" to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg. It never materialized.

He never forcefully pushed for the Lens and now regrets not spending more money to market it.

Sweetbay officials alleged that they told Foster the supermarket was in financial peril. He said they never did. So, even as 21 other Sweetbays closed in the Tampa Bay area, Foster became the face of that location's failure.

Juxtapose that with the celebrated news of Walmart's arrival. Foster, who attended multiple meetings to secure the deal, captured almost no recognition. And he's okay with that.

"If they open on time," he said, "I'll take some credit."

• • •

Bill Foster, 50, is simple, the kind of man who takes "boring" as a compliment.

He sets his morning alarm to sound an hour and nine minutes before he has to be somewhere so he can hit snooze exactly once. He wakes to a glass of Welch's grape juice and falls asleep to Jay Leno's opening monologue. He likes to whistle show tunes and says his vice is a nightly mix of rainbow sherbet and diet peach Fresca.

He carries in his pocket a coin inscribed with a Bible verse and the word: "PERSEVERANCE." Foster rubs it when he's stressed. Its letters have begun to fade.

On a recent sunny morning, Foster stood beneath a tent to celebrate the start of renovations to Rio Vista Park. He praised the work of those who led the project. He cracked a joke about council member Bill Dudley's commitment to fitness. He asked God to bless the crowd.

Foster dug a shovel into the dirt and posed for a photo. The ceremony ended, but the mayor lingered. He talked baseball and scratched the head of a white bichon frise named Bear.

A young city employee, his shirt soaked in sweat, spotted the mayor and stuck out his hand.

"Hey," said Foster, bypassing the handshake for a hug. "How you doing?"

A short woman in a Rays shirt wanted one, too, and wrapped her arms around his neck.

There, far from the games of a campaign and the intensity of council chambers, Foster looked at home. The coin in his pocket remained untouched. He asked no one for a vote.

Later, back in the car and headed to a staff meeting, Foster thought briefly of the weekend ahead. He was hosting his daughter's wedding shower, a backyard barbecue. She's getting married next month — less than two weeks after the election.

That date, set long ago, seemed perplexing.

Foster sighed.

"I guess I thought the city was doing so well that I would run unopposed."

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