I have lived in St. Petersburg off and on since 1994, when I was hired by the St. Petersburg Times as an editorial writer and columnist. I have seen several local elections come and go. During each mayoral election, candidates promise to establish programs and projects to improve life in predominantly black Midtown and Childs Park. Call me a curmudgeon, but I take most campaign promises with a grain of salt.
So here we go again. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman are out there making promises to black residents. The most surprising ones have come from Foster. They are surprising both for their boldness in light of Foster's previous stances and for their timing, made just two weeks before voters go to the polls.
The mayor now promises to hire a top administrator to be in charge of economic development in Midtown and Childs Park. He says he will create a citizens panel to monitor police issues such as the unpopular pursuit policy and other longstanding conflicts between the black community and the police department.
The more surprising of the two promises is the hiring of an administrator who answers to the mayor to oversee projects in Midtown. Many people are mystified by this promise. Foster fired Goliath Davis, the former deputy mayor for Midtown and the former police chief, in 2011 and had refused to hire a replacement.
In January, after two years of being criticized by many black residents for seeming to have forgotten the problems of Midtown and Childs Park, Foster told the Tampa Bay Times: "Now, there is no middleman. That community can come to me."
People who knew Davis and observed his work ethic know that he was a tireless advocate. He regularly was the first in the office and the last to leave. His duties included property acquisitions, preparing grants, attracting businesses, finding affordable housing, securing jobs for those willing and able to work and mediating disputes between residents and the city.
"We did everything from A through Z," he told me.
Residents I spoke with said they knew from the beginning that if Foster did not replace Davis, Midtown and Childs Park problems would be shunted aside at City Hall. They were incredulous at Foster's claim that he could perform his other duties as mayor while simultaneously handling the unique problems of Midtown and Childs Park.
Foster has only himself to blame for the widespread scoffing now. Does he really think anyone south of Central Avenue, except for a handful of faithful, believes he now sees the wisdom of hiring a replacement for Davis? Does he really believe he will get more black votes with this election ploy?
Apparently, he does. But I must be fair. Foster is following a shameless tradition in campaigning. Since blacks were given the right to vote and began showing up at the polls in respectable numbers, political candidates of all stripes have been coming to black communities — usually low-income and isolated places — to make big promises, even impossible whoppers.
All too often, the black church is the venue of choice on the stump for candidates peddling sundry snake oil. They know that the church is a place of captive audiences, where faithful parishioners tend to do what their pastors suggest.
The dishonesty is odious because the politicians know they are dealing with a lot of people desperate to see material improvement in their lives, no matter how small.
In St. Petersburg, the compact black vote often provides the winning margin in mayoral contests. And for that reason, Kriseman, too, has made some promises. But he is savvy and has not tossed around many. Why put a lot of stuff, especially ill-timed stuff, on the record that may blow up in your face?
There is little more than a week until the mayoral election, and the race appears to be close. What will be the next big promise to residents of Midtown and Childs Park?