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Candidates reaching out to churches for support

The scene has been played out in many churches for the last two months. This time it featured retired Army Gen. Bill Klein.

Klein, who is running for mayor against incumbent David Fischer, brought his message to Bethel Community Baptist Church on Sunday. His appearance stirred the Rev. Manuel Sykes, who appears to have thrown his support to Klein.

"I cannot yet make a definite statement, but personally I find it refreshing when a person is willing to stand up in the face of whites and blacks and say that they are going to be equals and they are going to remedy past wrongs," Sykes said Monday, the day after hearing Klein declare that he is not a racist and pledge to be fair to the African-American community.

"To me, that is impressive," Sykes continued. "He doesn't have to say that to get the white vote. I see him as courageous and a person of personal accountability."

Klein and Fischer are finding many churches, mostly those with predominantly African-American congregations, a place to build support for their campaigns.

"On Sundays, I appear in a number of churches," Fischer said. "This is a tradition. This is my third campaign that I have done this."

While African-American church leaders seem willing to express their support for a particular candidate, leaders of predominantly white churches tend to keep their opinions to themselves.

This difference in approach is not surprising to Danny Jorgensen, professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida.

"The black church has historically been the major black-controlled institution within the black community," he said. "The black church consequently has been involved in politics, usually on major issues."

Added Sandra Garcia, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at USF: "A lot of the spiritual songs sung by the slaves were, many of them, coded wishes. Steal Away To Jesus was like, "Let us get out of here tonight.' In more modern days, the civil rights movement had its start in the church. It is easy to understand, because the church was the place blacks could gather without the threat of being killed."

The role that African-American churches play in politics was evident in the last St. Petersburg mayoral election, in which Fischer ran against former Police Chief Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger.

"There was a candidate in the previous election (who) was perceived to be racist. The black churches played a very important role there. Whether or not that is an issue in this election is not clear," Jorgensen said. "Some of the Fischer campaign people have tried to make that an issue."

It is an issue that apparently is pushing Sykes, who leads both his 800-member church and the newly founded Coalition of African-American Leadership, away from Fischer. He allowed Marva Dennard, a spokeswoman for the coalition, to distribute Klein fliers during Sunday's service.

Fischer, meanwhile, did not appear at Bethel when planned, Sykes said. But the mayor said he will visit the church this Sunday.

Last week Fischer visited players with the predominantly African-American Shepherd's Men Basketball Ministry, a group of about 22 churches that seeks to keep youngsters off the streets. And Sunday he attended Trinity Presbyterian Church, which has a predominantly African-American congregation. A group at the church has invited the mayor to meet with them to discuss his plans for the next four years. No other candidate has been invited, said the Rev. Fred Terry, who is a strong supporter of Fischer.

"I am impressed by the way Mr. Fischer handled the riot situation," he said. "We did not lose lives, because Fischer and (Police Chief) Darrel Stephens were on the front lines. I think that we had strong leadership and common sense."

Despite his support of the mayor, Terry said he will not tell his congregation how to vote.

Instead, he said, "I have been stressing from the pulpit the urgency to vote, and if we go to the polls to vote, we won't have to go to the streets if we select the right person."

For another predominantly African-American congregation, the 2,500- to 3,000-member Mount Zion Progressive Baptist Church, the right person apparently is Fischer, who has been endorsed by the church's political action committee.

Committee chairman Lorenzo Dickens said they were looking for a candidate with experience who they could work with for the next four years. "We are not saying that Bill Klein is not a good candidate," Dickens said. "We are basically saying that because we don't have the history of Bill Klein, we are not in a position to back him."

Among church leaders who will not try to influence their members is the Rev. Kim Wells of Lakewood United Church of Christ, a racially mixed church.

"I know that it is the policy of some pastors to announce from the pulpit who they are going to vote for and encourage their congregation to do the same," she said. "That is not part of our practice. . . . We promote voting, but we leave it to each individual."

The Rev. Harry Parrott Jr., pastor of the predominantly white American Baptist Church of the Beatitudes, also is leaving the decision up to his parishioners.

"We are not endorsing anyone," he said. "We are just urging our people to get out and vote."

Jorgensen, the USF professor, said the way white churches behave in the political arena varies according to denomination.

"Fischer is the standard liberal candidate and most likely to pick up the support of the liberal, mainline Protestant churches," he said. "The Episcopalians would be a typical example there."

Klein, on the other hand, is seen as a law and order, conservative or moderate candidate, Jorgenson said. "One would expect that he would get the more conservative Protestant vote."

Not among the latter are members of the St. Petersburg Society of Friends, better known as Quakers. The group, known for its social action and anti-militarism, is paying close attention to what candidates say, said Herb Haig, a longtime member of the congregation.

As for endorsing a particular candidate, Haig indicated that the group is leaning toward Fischer rather than Klein, who is a retired Army general and an advocate of a well-equipped police force.

"A person with a military background will have to undergo a lot of scrutiny by Quakers," Haig said. "Quakers are in favor of gun control and would want to decrease, if not eliminate, guns altogether."

But Klein may have the support of some of the city's Episcopalians, a large number of whom attend the Cathedral Church of St. Peter, where he is active. It is difficult to tell, however, since the church has forbidden open campaigning.

"We made it very clear, no politicking here," said the Rev. Stephen Becker, associate priest at the cathedral. "We have people who support both candidates. We just try to love and support our leaders in this city and to be appreciative of all of them."

The church will not even encourage parishioners to go to the polls, Becker added.

"We don't even mention it," he said. "We assume that people are politically involved, and most people at this church are. . . . We have people who work in City Hall here and work in the government, whether it is prominent people on the police force or not."

Fischer said he also is a member of St. Peter's but is not presently active in the church.

For Jean Pugh, president of the Tampa Bay Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a member of the organization's national advisory council, churches should never endorse candidates in any election.

"They are not supposed to campaign for specific individuals, but they can talk about issues," she said of religious groups. "The thing is, people like the Christian Coalition ignore that completely. They can have candidate forums if they bring both sides in. They can argue for specific things, like if they want a park near the church. Some of these churches are flirting with political activity so recklessly they are going to end up losing their tax exemption."

Historically, she said, African-American churches have been the exception to the rule. "Jesse Jackson has done a lot of campaigning in black churches," Pugh said, making the same point that Jorgenson and Garcia did about African-American churches being the center of the community.

That has changed, she said. "They can't say that is the only place where they can talk."

But the co-mingling of religion and politics is open to different interpretations, Jorgenson said. "Religion and politics have never been separate in American society."

_ Staff writer Nancy Paradis contributed to this story.