ST. PETERSBURG — A month ago, campaign signs for the mayor's race were a rare sight in the city's predominantly African-American neighborhoods.
Now a sea of red, white and blue "Kathleen Ford for Mayor" placards dominate intersections and side streets in pivotal neighborhoods south of Central Avenue.
The surge came immediately after Goliath Davis, one of the community's most influential leaders as well as a former police chief and city administrator, proclaimed that Ford is a viable candidate to lead the city.
Are the signs a result of Davis or simply coincidence? It depends who you ask.
"It's who people like," said Lonnie Anderson, 67, as he sold produce out of the back of his truck on Sixth Avenue S last week. "I like what Goliath said, but people still make up their own minds."
Even though the Aug. 27 primary is still nearly three months away — an eternity in politics — local polls and yard signs seem to show Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman aren't wooing many voters in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Two issues are driving the political talk in Midtown: The February closing of the Sweetbay Supermarket in Tangerine Plaza and the May 31 closing of the Pier.
People are discussing the issues in barber shops, beauty salons and churches.
The Pier controversy is helping Ford, a former council member. She unsuccessfully sued the city to try to force a public vote on the inverted pyramid's fate.
"Kathleen is against the Lens," said Carlton Gregg, 60, who heard Ford speak to the congregation recently at New Faith Free Methodist Church in Wildwood Heights. "She has her finger on the pulse of the black community. If the mayor isn't taking our ideas into consideration, he shouldn't be mayor."
That message appears unified throughout the African-American community.
"I'm sure she'll do better than Foster," said Yvonne Clayton, 73, who has a Ford sign in her front yard. "She will listen and communicate with all the people."
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Winning over black voters is considered crucial to landing the city's top job.
The city's majority black neighborhoods often vote as a near-monolithic bloc and have sided with the winner in recent campaigns.
Foster, 50, carried the vote over Ford in 2009, but his support could be slipping.
"I don't see anything he has done," Laminka Williams, 39, said while sitting under a dryer at the House of Styles on 18th Avenue S. "He says one thing and does another."
Janett Albritton said she drove a Ford sign into her Harbordale yard for one reason: She doesn't like the way Foster holds "secret meetings" on major issues and refuses to speak afterwards.
She knows the praise Davis heaped on Ford but said residents are engaged in the race. She grew agitated while recalling how Foster forgot that Sweetbay officials visited his office two years before the store closed.
"Ford is the best thing," said Albritton, 63, a part-time receptionist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Right now, she is listening to us."
The primary, Foster said, is nearly three months away and that all votes are important.
He pointed out his administration is working to create a community redevelopment area in the neighborhood along with readying the historic Manhattan Casino for a soon-to-be restaurant. He expects more development to follow.
Foster also said he initiated the African American Heritage Project and had blighted homes removed from the Childs Park and Melrose neighborhoods.
"I think the area is better because of our emphasis," he said. "There's a lot there."
A Tampa Bay Times reporter found one Foster campaign sign in the neighborhood, but residents there did not answer the door.
"It has been less than a week since we planted our first sign in the city," Foster said. "Give it time."
Kriseman, 50, said he is confident he'll win black support as the campaign progresses. He pointed out that Ford lost black precincts in earlier races to Foster and former Mayor Rick Baker.
"I've spent my entire career fighting for values aligned with the African-American community, which is why Kathleen Ford's record has troubled me," he said. "What voters want is someone who is a unifying figure for St. Petersburg. That's what I bring to the table."
Ford said she is glad that residents want a new leader.
"I'm very appreciative of the support I've received throughout the city," Ford said. "I've told everyone that I'm going to work hard. I will speak wherever people want."
A recent telephone survey shows her gaining traction.
Among 325 black voters polled on May 30, Ford beat Foster, taking 38 percent to his 21 percent. Kriseman won 9 percent.
Twenty-six percent of black voters said they were undecided, according to a poll done by StPetePolls.org and commissioned by local blogger Peter Schorsch. The poll has a margin of error of 5.4 percentage points.
In a two-way contest among black voters, Ford beat Foster 52.5 percent to 26.5 percent. Twenty-one percent were undecided.
Clayton, a retired teacher, said she believes Ford will improve education for the city's children. Foster, she said, hasn't pushed the city forward.
"I can't think of anything he has done to help," she said. "He can't remember conversations he tells people. Maybe he shouldn't have been mayor."
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Making her third bid for mayor, Ford still carries the reputation of being a polarizing figure among City Hall staffers. She also stoked controversy weeks before the 2009 election when she used the racially charged acronym HNIC, or Head Negro in Charge, while discussing Davis on a radio show.
But a new public image could be emerging.
While speaking last fall at a memorial for Spc. Brittany Gordon, an Army intelligence analyst and daughter of assistant police chief Cedric Gordon, Ford talked about the friendship between her daughter and Brittany Gordon.
Moses Holmes, 77, walked away impressed.
Ford had a "harsh and draconian" image prior to the memorial, Holmes said.
But she came across as "softer and more passionate," the retired lobbyist said.
"I saw a different side of her. It changed my mind. I told her she should show the public that side."
Foster vowed that he will battle for votes:
"I will challenge anyone to show me what Mrs. Ford has done for the community in the last four years."
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.