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Klein erodes Fischer's black foundation

The candidate stands alone on the polished wood dance floor, his image reflected on the mirrored walls behind him.

Yes, he wants a stronger police force, he says.

"But they've got to be well-trained and professional. They can't stop a guy just because of the color of his skin. One of the things I've said on both sides of town is that if I am mayor, we're going to have a no-tolerance policy" on racial slurs and other prejudiced behavior.

"We need to quit referring to St. Petersburg as north and south, east and west," he continues. "We need to be one city."

The candidate is Bill Klein, and the audience he's talking to, in a newly refurbished nightclub at the corner of 34th Street and 18th Avenue S, is a racially mixed one, organized by a group calling itself the African-American Friends of Bill Klein.

Klein, who is challenging Mayor David Fischer in Tuesday's election, says his pitch is the same here as with any other group in the city. Indeed, he touts his familiar themes of strong leadership, fighting crime and making the city more friendly to business development.

But this particular event Friday evening signaled a turn in this year's mayoral campaign:

Klein _ backed by many of the same people who four years ago supported Curt Curtsinger, an ex-police officer whom some considered a racist _ is making a determined play for black votes.

And some black folks, at least, are listening.

The reasons have to do with wishes and political calculations on both sides.

Klein says his desire to be mayor for all St. Petersburg residents, no matter their skin color, is sincere. John Williams, his campaign manager, says Klein especially does not want to have to govern a city as racially divided as it was four years ago during the Fischer-Curtsinger campaign.

By courting black voters, Klein has sought to refute the Fischer campaign's attempt to characterize him as a Curtsinger clone.

But it also is fundamental in politics that you win close elections by capturing the undecided voters. Many of those voters are African-American.

To be sure, Fischer still enjoys the support of most black St. Petersburg residents. A Times poll published this week found that 57 percent of blacks who intend to vote Tuesday favored Fischer. Only 16 percent favored Klein.

But that margin is much less than what Fischer earned four years ago, when virtually all African-Americans preferred him over Curtsinger. Heavy turnout in predominantly black precincts helped Fischer win by less than 1 percent of the vote.

Now, some prominent civic and business leaders who are black and supported Fischer in 1993 have turned against him. They either say they are disappointed in his performance since then, or that they never liked him so much as they disliked Curtsinger.

Some also see profit in not letting any one candidate take "the black vote" for granted.

I.W. "Ike" Williams, a longtime black Republican, says black interests are served when blacks are included in all political circles. A Fischer supporter in 1993, he now supports Klein.

Marvin Davies, a former NAACP official who spent two decades working for Democratic Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, also supports Klein. (St. Petersburg politics is officially non-partisan.)

"It's like I told the ministers the other day," Davies said. "We can't put all our eggs in one basket. If the basket drops we will have no chicken. We need to have access to whoever becomes mayor."

Davies stresses that his support for Klein runs deeper than this: "Fischer hasn't done anything." Klein, meanwhile, impresses him as a sensitive man who is willing to listen as he tries to mend the city's racial divisions. "I can work with a man like that."

Many other politically active blacks remain loyal to Fischer. Not only do they credit him with a calm hand during last fall's racial disturbances, they also say he has worked hard to include black neighborhoods in his citywide improvement efforts.

"I don't even know Bill Klein. I don't want to know Bill Klein. You don't change horses in the middle of the stream," said Johnnie Mack, longtime leader of the Fruitland Heights Neighborhood Association, which borders the intersection where a white police officer fatally shot a young black man in October, sparking the disturbances.

One of two groups calling themselves the Coalition of African-American Leadership _ the one led by Sevell Brown _ endorsed Fischer on Wednesday. (See story, 4B.)

The other coalition _ led by Rev. Manuel Sykes _ is holding a public forum for mayoral and City Council candidates at 8 tonight at Bethel Community Baptist Church, at 1045 16th St. S.

This coalition, which says it has emphasized popular participation more than the Brown coalition, has not made an official endorsement. But several of its leaders appear to be leaning toward Klein.

Sykes, in whose church Klein worshiped Sunday, calls the would-be mayor "refreshing" and "courageous."

Marva Dennard, another Sykes-coalition leader, says she personally delivered 1,500 absentee votes for Fischer in 1993. Not this time.

She said Fischer's response to last fall's disturbances clinched her decision. "He said he had no idea this was going to happen. It was almost as if he was in shock. Which troubles me. He knew three years ago that our community said we had problems. And he has totally ignored the black community, period."

She criticizes a list of Fischer decisions: his $3.9-million bailout of the St. Petersburg International Museum; his failure to hire any new black senior administrators; his ambiguous role in redeveloping Jordan Park; his lukewarm response to a racist police department cartoon after the disturbances.

Klein, she says, is a breath of fresh air. And no, it doesn't bother her that she joins some former Curtsinger supporters. "I have no problems with who is supporting him. I would love for him just to have everyone's support. I can't agree with everyone."

In the Times poll, Fischer led Klein overall, 43 percent to 33 percent, with 24 percent undecided.

One measure of Fischer's vulnerability may be that, when those who were leaning toward a candidate were counted, Klein gained twice as many points among black voters as Fischer did.

Fischer said Wednesday that he knows he can't take black voters for granted.

Still, he defended his record: neighborhood improvements; greatly expanded homeowner assistance; new jobs in Central Plaza; the baseball stadium; and a vacant hospital on Sixth Street S.

Such intensive neighborhood improvement programs have "never happened before in the black community _ ever," he said. In two predominantly black neighborhoods, property values rose 20 percent in two years, while the citywide increase was just 4 percent, he says. "You have to do these one neighborhood at a time," but more are on the way, he said.

Some might be tempted to elect a new mayor, he acknowledges. "But if you look at what I've done, they're taking a big chance. If their man gets in and doesn't do as much as I've done, then they've lost something. . . .

"With the record I've had in the black community, I think they're taking a gamble."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.