Friday, January 19, 2018
Politics

St. Petersburg's African-American community divided on mayor's race

ST. PETERSBURG — Richard Dawkins is tired of the talk swirling around the $50 million plan to replace the Pier.

The 62-year-old is more concerned with litter, crumbling streets and abandoned homes in the predominately black neighborhoods south of Central Avenue. He doesn't want to hear candidates preach about downtown, Snell Isle or Shore Acres when the race for mayor heats up next month.

"I'm sick of hearing about the white elephant," Dawkins said from his scooter last week on 13th Street S. "We need our neighborhoods fixed up."

Candidates will soon flood churches and streets in the city's southern neighborhoods to seek support from black residents in the Aug. 27 primary election.

The city's majority black neighborhoods have sided with the winner in most mayoral campaigns. Black voters account for nearly one-fifth of the electorate, but have had outsized influence because they often vote as a near-monolithic bloc.

And black voters may now become more engaged since Goliath Davis, one of the city's most influential African-Americans, proclaimed last week that former City Council member Kathleen Ford is a viable candidate to lead the city.

The race also pits Mayor Bill Foster against former City Council member Rick Kriseman, along with Paul Congemi and Anthony Cates.

In this race, black leaders don't think one candidate will capture all the votes because residents appear to be divided.

And the major candidates prefer to talk about all voters, not one group.

"Every single vote is important," Foster said. "My record will speak for itself, and so will the records of my opponents."

Kriseman agreed, saying: "Our campaign is focused on the entire city and that's how I'll govern."

Ford, who is seeking the job for a third time, did not respond for a comment.

Maggie Clark, 78, said she needs more details before she picks a candidate.

She wants to hear how they will improve infrastructure in the neighborhoods. She doesn't really care who wins as long as better services are delivered.

"We don't have the same access to services," she said. "People need help getting homes fixed."

Dawkins pointed out an example. He said street sweepers are rarely spotted in his neighborhood despite litter strewn on most streets. City leaders, he said, wouldn't allow trash to collect like that downtown or in Snell Isle.

"I'm sick of it," he said. "They're taking our tax money, but it's not coming back here. Just look around."

Another lightning rod on the campaign trail could be Midtown's Tangerine Plaza.

The city invested millions in public money to help bring Sweetbay Supermarket to the plaza in 2005. The project was viewed as the catalyst to revitalize Midtown.

But Sweetbay closed in February, leaving an oasis of empty parking spots. With Sweetbay gone, only five cars were parked in the lot at 3 p.m. Monday.

Rumors continually swirl that the private developer is close to landing a new grocer.

Tenants keep hearing August, said Nadia Alhadri, 51, owner of Unlimited Beauty Service. But most days, customers don't visit her 7-year-old store, she said.

"My business is down 80 percent," she said. "I don't feel anybody is coming. The older people in this neighborhood are dying for a grocery store. It's not just the merchants."

Political history in St. Petersburg suggests candidates can win office if they secure the downtown, Old Northeast and Midtown vote.

But in the 2009 primary, Foster essentially pushed away the black leaders who helped deliver recent races to Rick Baker and David Fischer. The vote ended up going to Deveron Gibbons.

In the general election, Foster and Ford battled passionately for the city's black vote. Election records show Foster ultimately won the battle. In the weeks leading up to the general election, 55.5 percent of voters in Childs Park and Midtown cast mail ballots for Foster. Foster collected 63 percent of Election Day votes in those areas.

During the race, Foster promised to become the city's first black mayor at a NAACP event by addressing the community's needs. But reviews were mixed on whether he's done that.

Moses Green, associate pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, said Foster has failed black residents by not doing enough to lure development south of Central Avenue.

He also faults Foster for not listening to voters who signed petitions to replace the Pier. The mayor will pay for that mistake at the polls, Green added.

"Any politician that doesn't listen to the people doesn't deserve a second chance," said Green, 77, who supports Kriseman.

Not so fast, said Oscar Werby.

He supports Foster since the city delivers quality services to senior citizens and because Foster refuses to let the Tampa Bay Rays explore stadium options outside the city.

"He's doing good," said Werby, 44. "If you get anything good going in the 'Burg, you have to keep it."

Ray Tampa disagreed.

The former president of the local NAACP chapter predicted that Ford would carry the majority of the black vote this year.

"I'm firmly in her camp," said Tampa, 61. "She's bold. She's strong. She's decisive."

Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

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