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In race for mayor of St. Petersburg, neither candidate is winning over black voters

Mayoral elections in this city, even entirely unpredictable ones like this one, ultimately come down to the same factor election after election.

Race.

Bemoan it all you want. Pretend St. Petersburg has finally moved into the post-racial Obama era. Issues, not tired old racial divisions, are what count in 2009, right?

Nonsense. Ten days from now, it will probably be African-American voters who decide whether the next mayor is Kathleen Ford or Bill Foster, just as they've swung every competitive mayoral race for two decades.

The most remarkable thing about this contest is that it pits two of the most racially ham-handed candidates this city has seen in a long time. Racial politics are always a minefield, and in this election both candidates happily trudge through that minefield sporting giant clown shoes. To hear some of Foster's key African-American supporters tell it, the choice is between bad and disastrous.

Calling Kathleen Ford a racist is absurd. But come on: a white politician in a diverse city wants to appear on a shock jock radio show and invoke the term "H.N.I.C." — an acronym for "head n----- in charge"? Surely common sense would tell most anyone that such a comment would cause a stink when talking about the most influential black leader in city government, Goliath Davis.

Once the inevitable fire storm erupted, Ford hid from reporters and refused to further speak or clarify her comments. If a Love Sponge interview sends her into hiding, we can only wonder how she'd handle a real crisis as mayor.

Then there's would-be Mayor Bill Foster, who at one recent debate all but suggested African-Americans don't understand business.

"They may be wonderful contractors and know the Florida building code inside and out, but they may be lousy business owners as far as the entrepreneurial skills," Foster offered when asked about the city's contracting policy.

Foster was so naive about racial politics in his hometown — or perhaps frightened about antagonizing white voters and a few leaders of the police union — that he didn't even understand how insulted potentially key African-American backers would be when he refused to be photographed with Goliath Davis.

Foster essentially pushed away the African-American political machine that has delivered the last five mayor's races to Rick Baker and David Fischer. He's tried to make amends, but signs abound that this could be the first mayor's race in nearly two decades in which neither candidate overwhelmingly wins the black vote.

In past elections one would drive down streets like Columbus Way South in Lakewood Estates and see Rick Baker or David Fischer signs everywhere. This year, the few posted in the heavily African-American neighborhood are a mix of Foster and Ford signs.

"It's really just choosing the lesser of two evils," said Phillip Haywood Sr., who had a Kathleen Ford sign in his 31st Street South yard but trashed it after her appearance on Bubba the Love Sponge and now plans to vote for Foster. "I don't know about the leadership we're about to get. It feels like we could be going back to the 1970s."

African-American voters account for nearly one fifth of the electorate, but have had outsized influence because they have often voted as a near-monolithic block. In most heavily African-American precincts, Mayors Baker and Fischer won at least 80 percent of the vote.

A St. Petersburg Times poll earlier this month found 26 percent of black voters backing Ford, 33 percent Foster, and 37 percent undecided. Overall, the poll showed Ford leading by 5 percentage points, though the poll's margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points (and more than 7 points for the African-American subset).

Gypsy Gallardo, a veteran campaign operative and publisher, predicted a divided African-American vote this year. That's a positive, she said, a sign that the city is not racially polarized the way it was in 2001 when Ford was an outspoken enemy of then-police Chief Davis, or in 1996 when race riots overshadowed the Fischer-Bill Klein race or in 1993 when Curt Curtsinger was widely seen a racially polarizing figure.

"Those who would normally be an engine behind a wedge strategy were either in different camps in this election or they were sidelined," Gallardo said. "There is no appetite for racial politics this year. This is an election where, because of the recession and joblessness, people say it's about who can deliver — on job creation, on work force development, on affordable housing."

Baker, a Foster backer, said it's nonsense to equate Ford and Foster when it comes to issues important to Midtown voters. Foster supported every Midtown initiative Baker launched, he said, while Ford was largely invisible in the community until about a year ago.

"That's a stark difference," Baker said.

Perhaps. But Foster hasn't succeeded in making that case so far. The main person helping him win African-American support lately has been Kathleen Ford, with an assist from Bubba the Love Sponge.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.

In race for mayor of St. Petersburg, neither candidate is winning over black voters 10/23/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 12:02am]
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