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District 4 candidates trade personal barbs

Published Oct. 1, 2005

Some political campaigns are like errant soccer balls. You have no idea where they'll go.

Kathleen Ford admits to feeling a little like that in her campaign for City Council in District 4.

After nearly a decade of volunteer work _ much of it in her neighborhood, some on a citywide basis _ Ford had built up a network of contacts and experiences that she felt would serve her well on the council.

Plenty of people agreed with her. Before the district primary, the 39-year-old lawyer had collected nearly $10,000 in contributions, much of it from prominent business leaders and professionals.

Then she spoke to the news media, and her plans went awry.

In two interviews with the Times, Ford spoke of buffering poor neighborhoods from rich ones and the undesirability of catering to "lower socioeconomic groups."

Her two opponents, already criticizing her for being a pushy elitist, seized on her comments.

Pat Fulton, who finished second to Ford in the primary, went downtown and talked to the owner of a trendy used denim store _ next door to a tattoo parlor _ that Ford had seemed to disparage. The owners, Stuart Wray and Claire Balitsaris, were both amused and outraged. They became vocal Fulton supporters.

"I've had responses from people all over the city that I don't even know, saying, "This woman scares me,' " Fulton said Thursday.

All this has left Ford feeling surprised and frustrated that her "real message" hasn't gotten across.

According to her, the message is this: "We're at a critical point in St. Petersburg. We have to maintain our attention to our neighborhoods. People do feel they can have a positive effect by working together."

Her approach _ banding neighbors and city officials together to raise standards in housing, crime prevention and adjacent commercial development _ can work all over the city, regardless of race or socioeconomic level, she says.

It is already happening, she says. She wants to be on the council to make sure it continues.

Some of Ford's friends and supporters say she is the one who has been unfairly disparaged.

Karl Nurse, a printing company owner and longtime neighborhood leader in the Old Southeast, said the Ford he has known from serving on a housing roundtable together is absolutely concerned for the whole city, not just the Old Northeast, where she lives.

The Old Northeast has gotten some bad publicity because it has made inevitable mistakes in pioneering the city's neighborhood revitalization plans, Nurse says. People in other parts of the city may even envy what they see as an increasingly well-to-do neighborhood _ not the transient, crime-ridden sections that plagued it when Ford and others started working a decade ago.

"The public image of what they're working on now is not good," says Nurse, who has a Ford sign in his front yard. "But I know what Kathleen has been working on for the past half dozen years or so, and it's the kind of thing that turns neighborhoods around."

He continues: "Clearly Kathleen has phrased some things badly. But the neighborhood that adjoins you does have a dramatic impact on you. I live next door to Bartlett Park. The fact that property values there have risen 20 percent in the past two years has had a dramatic positive impact on my neighborhood. And if the reverse were true, it would have had the opposite effect."

Both Nurse and former council member Martha Maddux, another admirer, say Ford just needs to learn how to speak more inclusively _ "that you have to talk about what you're standing for in a way that brings people into you, instead of pushing people out," as Maddux says.

Fulton, a long-time grass-roots activist who finished a distant third in the mayor's race four years ago, says Ford still has too much to learn.

Making the rounds of candidate forums, Ford "has not been able to read audiences," Fulton says. "Her approach is not going over. She makes points for me when she talks. I don't write her speeches."

Fulton, 56, also says it was Ford, not she, who first made personal issues a key element of the campaign, by calling people's attention to the fact that Fulton lost her house to foreclosure four years ago, while she was campaigning for mayor. The lawsuit was filed two months before the election.

Ford and others say Fulton doesn't have enough financial sense to be on the council.

Fulton scoffs. "There are more people in this city who have had financial struggles of one sort or another. . . . They resent it when people seem to stand in judgment over them. That's what it sounds like to them. I don't know what she has in mind."

For the record, Fulton blames her problems on trying to work as a freelance writer, never a particularly rich way to make a living, and certainly not when some of the publications one works for have a habit of folding. Earlier in her life, she did have stable employment as a teacher, she says. (She holds a doctorate in English.)

Since 1993 she has developed an expertise in technical writing and now has a solid job with a software consultant, she says.

Ford also continues to criticize Fulton for endorsing former police chief Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger in the mayoral runoff that year. Although Curtsinger polled more than 49 percent of the vote, others considered him a racist.

"We cannot afford to elect candidates who have endorsed divisive candidates in other elections," Ford says. Her supporters hint darkly that Fulton's endorsement was a desperate attempt to get a job.

"Oh God, no," Fulton responds. "He never offered and I didn't ask. That's slimy.

"They're grasping," she says of the attempt to smear her with Curtsinger. "When I endorsed him at the time, I saw him as a strong leader, not as a racist. If I had seen the racist qualities (that other people spoke of) I would not have endorsed him."

But that election is over, she says. Curtsinger left the city, and Fulton stayed to keep working on the grass-roots issues of her home town.

If she's elected to the council, she says, residents will know they have at least one council member who listens and understands them "just as they are."