ST. PETERSBURG — Kathleen Ford dropped off her mayoral campaign sign at Northeast Pyramid Barber Shop the other day, and owner Carl Troup cut to the chase.
"Kathleen, do you know whenever I mention your name to people, people's first reaction, is, "Oh, you mean the b----?' " said Troup, an enthusiastic Ford supporter who also cuts Gov. Charlie Crist's hair.
Ford chuckled. "I've heard that," she said.
Indeed she has. Not just the B-word, but also words like petulant, abusive, paranoid and more.
Morph Simon Cowell and Dick Cheney and you get a sense of the critics' caricature of Ford, who was, to put it mildly, a colorful force on St. Petersburg's City Council from 1997 to 2001.
"That's just because the good old boy network is scared,'' scoffed Troup about Ford's attackers. "Nobody wants to shake the tree down there, and it needs shaking hard."
There is a reason Ford's opponent, Bill Foster, calls temperament the most fundamental issue in the campaign. Probably the single biggest challenge facing Ford's candidacy is shaking her old image as a divisive loose cannon.
The friendly, well-informed Ford usually seen on the campaign trail does not square with council member known a decade ago for diatribes, eye rolling and sharp allegations. If enough voters dismiss the criticism over Ford's style or conclude she's mellowed, there may little between her and the mayor's office.
Nobody, friend or foe, questions Ford's energy, intellect or willingness to shake things up. Some see her as St. Petersburg's long-overdue watchdog. Others say she's a bully force who will divide and move the city backwards.
What is their evidence? Incidents like these: She once suggested with no evidence that St. Petersburg's first African-American police chief might be tipping off drug dealers. She refused to attend a council retreat aimed at restoring civility to the dysfunctional board because she said her colleagues failed to appreciate the importance of competence. She unsuccessfully sought FBI protection against "those who would seek to harm me."
"She used to go down the hallway during breaks and call us names if she didn't agree with how we voted on something.... 'Idiots" she'd call us, and a lot of other names," former council member Bob Kersteen recalled with a laugh.
There are too many city administrators to name who can painfully recall Ford, a 52-year-old attorney, relentlessly grilling them as TV cameras rolled.
"There's nothing wrong with asking tough questions. ...But there are ways to get things accomplished, and humiliating people isn't one of them. That showed me a lot about Kathleen's character," said Steve Wolochowicz, the city's former director of development services now working in South Carolina. "Her body language, her demeanor, her tone, all I can say is it was full of anger, full of meanness.''
That's a common view among people who worked with Ford at City Hall, several of whom are sure to be axed if Ford wins.
"I'm sure those folks who misled me — and they know who they are — are concerned. But the folks who dealt with me honestly should also feel confident and comfortable. And they know who they are,'' said Ford, who said she has urged city employees who support her to keep quiet because they could face retaliation from the Rick Baker administration.
Only reporters suggest she's a too divisive, Ford said, and she makes no apologies for being a passionate and probing steward for taxpayers.
Not everyone who worked with her fears a Mayor Ford.
George Friedel, a retired former finance administrator, recalled the extra workload his department faced trying to answer Ford's many requests for information. Of the 2,100 public records requests submitted to City Hall during the first three years of her tenure on City Council, Ford was responsible for more than 1,000.
"It meant a lot more work, but somebody was interested in what we did, so we didn't mind that. It showed someone was paying attention,'' said Friedel, who also had no problems with her peppering him with questions at meetings. "I liked that. It made me better. It made me be prepared. It's good to have someone in there paying attention, and she was one of the few who did."
Retired housing and community development chief Bob Rowan said those who drew Ford's ire tended to be the staff not giving her straight answers.
"Kathleen was the most diligent council member in doing her homework, so she knew what was going on at all times. She knew the score so she wasn't going to take any B.S. from anyone,'' Rowan said. "I'm going to vote for her, that's for sure."
Ford arguably was the most dominant force on City Council — and least effective. No one was more often on the losing end of 7-1 or 6-2 votes.
"At times she could be right on an issue, but her presentation drove people away,'' said former City Council member and mayoral candidate Larry Williams, now supporting Foster. "To be a successful City Council member – or a successful mayor – you need to ... bring people together and do it in a civil way. That was not Kathleen."
Former Council member Connie Kone said she once received a profanity-filled voice mail message from Ford back when both were neighborhood association leaders — "I didn't know nice girls knew that kind of language. She called me everything, twice," but still was taken aback by Ford's style on the council.
Kone recalled Ford's first day in office when Ford met a newly hired clerk who worked for several council members. Ford asked for a letter to be typed by a certain time and the young woman said she would do her best but had several other requests too.
"Kathleen said, "Really? If we can't get competent help around here, maybe we'll have to pursue this further.' … The poor gal had this stricken look on her face,'' Kone said.
Ford won just 43 percent of the vote against Rick Baker in 2001, and most leading candidates in this year's mayoral primary quietly said they hoped to face off against Ford because they saw her as unelectable, perceived as too divisive.
That perception is fast fading among many people closely watching Foster vs. Ford. Foster lacks the broad support Baker and former mayor David Fischer had over the last five city elections, and Ford's combative, controversial image has faded since she was last in office.
"I think that's a lot of her support, the people who don't know her, didn't see her in action. She (lately) looks, acts and talks very friendly, very respectfully. If you didn't know her past, you would be impressed,'' said Mike Dove, the city's former deputy mayor for neighborhood services. "But one of questions is whether there a side to her that can bring people together to actually accomplish things and implement things? I saw no proof or evidence of her ability to bring people together."
But asking tough questions and making well-paid bureaucrats squirm is not exactly political poison. Plenty of voters see that style as just the medicine needed at City Hall.
"Call it Perry Mason if you want, but I'd rather have someone in there asking the right questions and holding people accountable,'' said Bob Turel, a 14-year city trainer who was laid off amid budget cuts this week. "I'd like someone to probe this budget."
Ford, he said, is the one to do it.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]