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Mayor's race may draw high turnout

Three months of debate over the meaning of leadership in this city come to a close today, as voters elect a mayor and four City Council members.

And once again, St. Petersburg seems to have a squeaker of a mayor's race.

Turnout is uncertain, and few politicos are predicting a winner with any certainty. The choice is between Mayor David Fischer, the incumbent boasting of bringing tangible quality of life improvements to St. Petersburg, and political newcomer and retired Army Gen. Bill Klein, who argues that the city deserves a stronger leader and more accountability.

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Dorothy Ruggles expects around 40 percent of St. Petersburg's 159,532 registered voters will vote today, and Fischer's campaign consultant Mary Repper predicted turnout could be as high as 50 percent.

A 40 percent turnout would be unusually high for a mayoral race in St. Petersburg, though more than 53 percent voted in the highly contentious campaign between Fischer and former Police Chief Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger four years ago.

"The mayor's race is what will get the folks out, but I don't know that we have quite the emotionalism that we had in 1993," said City Clerk Jane Brown.

This election is precedent-setting because it is the first time in roughly 60 years that voters will knowingly elect a "strong mayor." Four years ago, in addition to narrowly electing Fischer, voters decided to end their city manager form of government and instead make the mayor the elected chief administrator.

The strong mayor question has been a constant theme through the campaign, particularly since the chief advocates for the strong mayor government are now Klein's key advisers. They contend that his management and leadership skills make him the sort of decisive, take-charge mayor the city has long needed.

That message has been effective, particularly in the aftermath of violent racial disturbances in October and November. Klein, a virtual unknown until this year, finished in first place in the Feb. 25 primary.

Fischer points to thousands of new jobs, a lower crime rate, lower taxes, a more vibrant downtown, a baseball team, extensive beautification efforts and aggressive neighborhood revitalization efforts under his administration. He calls results the true test of leadership and has sought to paint Klein as a stranger whose lack of community involvement makes him too much of an unknown commodity.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and voters in St. Petersburg will have seven decisions to make.

In addition to the mayoral and four city council races, voters will decide whether the Renaissance Vinoy Resort should be allowed to build a conference center behind its building. They also will determine whether to extend the Penny for Pinellas sales tax for another decade. (See story, 3B.)

The election is non-partisan, and every qualified voter in St. Petersburg can vote in each of the races. Residents living in each City Council district narrowed down their field of candidates to two in a primary last month, and voters citywide choose the winners today.

No matter what happens, at least two new faces will join the eight-person council, because term limits pushed Edward Cole in District 4 and Leslie Curran in District 8 into retirement. The council races include:

In District 2, incumbent and retired teacher Bea Griswold faces a challenge from Ronnie Beck, an architectural draftsman.

In District 4, the race is between lawyer and North Shore Neighborhood Association leader Kathleen Ford and technical writer Pat Fulton, best known as leader of the Downtown Core Group.

In District 6, the race is a repeat of four years ago, pitting incumbent David Welch against Frank Peterman Jr., an MCI customer service supervisor.

In District 8, the departure of Curran has opened up the seat for a race between Disston Heights Neighborhood Association president Jimmy Joe Biggerstaff and insurance adjuster and consumer advocate John "Jay" Lasita.

One of the hardest campaigners of the season has been the Vinoy, which lately has deluged the city with sign-wielding hotel employees drumming up support for the hotel referendum question.

The referendum asks voters for permission to build a 15,000-square-foot conference center where a near-permanent tent now stands along Seventh Avenue NE. The referendum is necessary because of deed restrictions on that land, which was given to the hotel in 1984 as part of a land swap.

The request has been widely endorsed by political leaders, as a way to make the downtown landmark more competitive and successful.