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Regardless of election, McRae plans to retire

Don McRae, City Hall's most low-key political lightning rod, is planning to retire soon.

Even if his supportive boss, Mayor David Fischer, wins another four-year term next week, McRae said Monday he is ready to retire after 25 years with the city. And if the election goes the other way, McRae is almost certainly leaving because mayoral challenger Bill Klein has said so.

"It's just time. I've been thinking about it a long time," the 66-year-old McRae said, insisting that Klein's comments had nothing to do with his decision. He has not set a retirement date, nor given any formal notice.

McRae groaned good naturedly Monday as a reporter approached, knowing he was about to become news again. "I'm trying to maintain a low-profile here," he protested. "My name isn't on the ballot."

But as much as he strives to work quietly, McRae is a reluctant symbol at City Hall.

Of what depends on your perspective.

Not only is Chief of Staff McRae the highest ranking African-American in city government, but he will long be remembered as the man who fired former police Chief Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger in 1992 for racial insensitivity. The firing of the popular chief touched off one of the most polarized periods in St. Petersburg's history, and Curtsinger wound up running unsuccessfully for mayor the following year.

Klein has battled comparisons to Curtsinger this year, fueled partly by his promise early in the campaign to cut McRae's nearly $100,000 position from the budget. McRae was the only person he has specifically named for cuts, and while the general said he was referring to the position and not the individual, he did take a shot at individual.

"The mayor may have perceived that (McRae) was Afro-American, and ergo that would send the wrong signal, but I've been down to talk to people and the black leaders have told me that he ought to go," Klein said early last month.

Fischer jumped on Klein's comment, saying that his naming McRae was an effort to appeal to a pro-Curtsinger constituency in the city.

At City Hall on Monday, between insisting that his views did not merit newsprint and occasionally bursting into booming laughter, McRae shrugged off Klein's comments.

"I try not to take it personally," he said, surmising that the comments came more from Klein's campaign staff than Klein himself. "If someone thinks it's in their best interest to attack, they're going to do it. It's a tactic they feel will advance their agenda."

Through his campaign manager, Klein declined to comment Monday about McRae's retirement. "There's not much more that could or really should be added," said campaign manager John Williams.

McRae has been actively campaigning for Fischer in recent weeks, particularly in predominantly black neighborhoods. His job _ part departmental supervisor and part ambassador to the minority community _ has clear political overtones.

But don't write him off as a political appointment; he has survived too many administrations for that.

"He's one of the solid rocks you can go to behind the scenes and know it will get done," said City Council member Ernest Fillyau, who sees little political maneuvering in McRae's actions. "It's not his job to be out in front. He carries out the policies of the council, and he does a fantastic job at that."

Fischer described him as "invaluable to my administration."

McRae has been recruited for most of the jobs he has had, and he said he has been loyal to every boss he had. He said that helps explain his support for Fischer.

"I'm a great person for loyalty," McRae said. "If folks have been fair with me, and I work for them, then I believe it's the right thing to do _ especially if I think they're sincere and doing what's best for the community."

McRae is part of one of the city's most prominent families, which has operated a funeral home since the 1920s.

The St. Petersburg native enlisted in the Army in 1951, was commissioned the following year, and spent the next 20 years in the service rising to lieutenant colonel. A helicopter pilot, McRae in 1963 was part of the first U.S. aviation unit deployed to Vietnam. On another tour, he was shot down and rescued.

McRae returned to St. Petersburg in 1972, and was recruited to the Police Department as a civilian employee starting up the city's helicopter unit and boat unit. He became chief of training for the department, before moving over to city administration in 1979, as a deputy city manager for human relations.

He was interim city manager when he fired Curtsinger _ while Fischer was gone for the weekend _ and four years later McRae said he would have handled the matter the same way.

"I have a responsibility for the whole city," McRae said. "I don't do things simply because I think it will advance the black agenda. I do things because I think it's in the best interest of the whole city."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.