ST. PETERSBURG — Did mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford use a racial slur to describe Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis III?
Ford said absolutely not. But Davis said his phone is "ringing off the hook" with angry complaints from people across all races and all neighborhoods.
It all started Tuesday morning when Ford went on Bubba the Love Sponge Clem's radio show on WHPT-FM 102.5.
Clem criticized Davis, a former police chief and current deputy mayor for midtown economic development, as the "quasi-leader of the African Americans."
The shock jock added: "To me it's talking down to them, that they have to somebody to quell them and keep them in line."
"Actually Cornel West has a whole explanation about the HNIC theory," she said, "and I agree with that. We don't need one spokesman for a group."
The acronym is at the heart of a brewing storm in a city used to racial strife and disenfranchisement. It stands for "Head Negro in Charge" and was most notably used by Princeton University Professor Cornel West in his 1994 book Race Matters.
"The time is past for black political and intellectual leaders to pose as the voice for Black America," West wrote. "The days of brokering for the black turf — of posing as the Head Negro in Charge — are over."
Ford put her words in this context on Friday:
"I was quoting the eminent professor from Princeton. … He gave a long talk on race issues at Eckerd College. He described this concept, and this is what I was referring to. I was using his words. I was using his concept."
Ford, 52, stressed that she did not call Davis an HNIC. She was making the point that the city does not need a black liaison to the black community.
"I want everybody to feel like they can ask me anything and they don't have to go through a certain staff member," she said.
Davis would not say whether he considered Ford's use of the term racist.
But, he said, voters need to examine why Ford would use such a term in the first place.
"Racism is a heavy label, and I am not going to stand here and label anyone racist," he said. "I think the salient issue is when you go into a voting booth to elect a mayor, you have to make sure you elect someone with the type of judgment and behavior that's appropriate for that office."
He said he's been hearing from people who are "completely outraged and upset that the term would be used in any context and that it would be directed towards me personally."
State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said the term is "derogatory." It means "someone propped up by corporate America, and some blacks would see that person as being less than competent or less than capable," he said.
Many interpret the "n" in the term, which has been used in movies and rap songs, to stand for a word even more offensive.
However, Rouson said he spoke with Ford and accepted the context in which she used the term.
"I believe she regrets any misinterpretation of the meaning," he said. "She only meant that she wanted the community to come directly to her."
Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, also was not upset about Ford's comment.
He said he got two calls about the issue on Friday: one caller was upset, the other wasn't. Then he met with Ford in person to discuss the matter.
"I'm very much OK with what she said to me," he said. "She did not refer to Goliath Davis as an HNIC. There was nothing racist in what she said."
Davis scoffed at the notion that he is the only city leader that black residents can turn to, or that his job is to address only their concerns.
"We have individuals every day who interface with administrators at all levels of our organization," he said.
Criticism of Ford's comments came from as far as Atlanta. Bobby Doctor was the former acting director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights when the group visited St. Petersburg during the 1996 riots.
"That kind of language can bring back that divide that characterized the city some years ago," he said.