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Fischer in charge // Mayor wins soundly as Klein's challenge falls short

Mayor David Fischer was re-elected Tuesday, decisively fending off an aggressive challenge from political newcomer Bill Klein.

The six-year incumbent received 54 percent of the vote despite being portrayed as too weak for a strong mayor system of government. Klein _ a virtual unknown just 12 weeks ago _ wound up with 46 percent of the vote.

The election served as a referendum on Fischer's leadership, especially after two violent racial disturbances cast widespread doubt on the mayor's mild-mannered style. The vote also pointed once again to a city where voters north of Central Avenue generally favored Fischer's opponent, while southern neighborhoods carried Fischer to four more years in office.

"I think this city can snap back together pretty quickly after an election," an ebullient Fischer said between hugs at a victory celebration at Pepin Restaurant. "I have no grudges against any one who did not vote for me. This is a new day, and it's time for everybody to work together. My door is open to everybody."

About 35 percent of the city's voters turned out for the first election where they knowingly voted for a "strong mayor" to serve as the chief administrator. Klein's remarkably strong campaign did serve as a wake-up call to the mayor, prodding him to embrace some of the same themes that Klein stressed.

After a second-place finish in the primary, for instance, Fischer voiced his intention to change some of his management staff and to re-examine code enforcement procedures and public safety in St. Petersburg.

"I forced him to see that the people are unhappy about a lot of things going on at City Hall. I hope he heard the hue and cry out there," said Klein, who campaigned against arrogant bureaucrats running City Hall and strangling progress with too much red tape. "If he doesn't (make changes), the public will rise up. . . . It's just a matter of whether he's man enough to do it."

As precinct results filtered in, Klein led the race for most of the night, until results came in from precincts south of Central Avenue.

Klein, a highly decorated Army veteran who also ran non-football operations for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 1980s, was livid after the final count. He blamed Fischer for "dirty, rotten" campaigning, including distributing to black voters a flier questioning Klein's racial sensitivity.

"We ran a positive campaign, while my opponent resorted to lies and innuendos. I don't like that kind of politics, but that's Dave Fischer," he said. "I wouldn't vote for him for anything."

Fischer said Klein is "a decent man" who is simply unaccustomed to the rough and tumble of politics. Fischer noted that the police union slammed him with a flier that accused him of constantly fanning racial tensions and opposing law enforcement.

Only a few months ago, Fischer, 63, looked like a shoo-in for re-election in a city where most obvious indicators were positive. The incumbent was running on his record: Under his watch, property taxes had fallen, the crime rate had dropped, the Devil Rays came, the city threw unprecedented attention at neighborhoods, and life started springing up downtown.

The image of burning businesses and Molotov cocktails overshadowed all that, however. Fischer's low-key style, always a source of criticism, turned into a major liability after the violent unrest. Some residents accused him of having ignored festering problems, and others accused him of letting rioters flaunt their law-breaking without consequences.

Enter Klein, who appealed to both those sentiments. The general's rapid political rise was only slightly more remarkable than Fischer's rapid fall.

Fischer has a history of squeaking through tough campaigns, but in Klein he faced one of his most formidable opponents. Klein, 65, accomplished his near upset by campaigning as the first anti-City Hall candidate in years who didn't scare much of the city's establishment base.

Despite his lack of a track record of local community involvement, Klein was a more moderate and less controversial opponent than Fischer's last two opponents, former police Chief Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger in 1993 and Dennis McDonald in 1991. And in the wake of the disturbances, the general even managed to win support from both the police union and some of the most ardent African-American critics of the Police Department.

Fischer portrayed Klein as a stranger who knew little about the city he has called home since 1969. He noted repeatedly that Klein had been working in Turkey from 1991 to 1996.

"We've accomplished a remarkable amount, and the choice was between what you know and what's unknown," Fischer said.

The mayor also promised Tuesday night to throw his administration full force into trying to deal with the troubles that helped spark those disturbances.

"I want four years from now for my hallmark to be that this mayor faced up to the inner-city problems that are not only in this community but in other cities across the country," Fischer said.

Fischer served a two-year term under the old city manager form of government, and then was re-elected four years ago at the same time voters decided they wanted the mayor to be the city's chief administrator.

Klein was tapped by the same people who fought to change the city's form of government. In Klein, they saw someone with leadership and management skills who could fulfill the promise of having the mayor serve as chief administrator.

They looked glum as the final precincts came in Tuesday.

"It's business as usual for the next four years," predicted former Mayor Randy Wedding, a key Klein adviser and chief proponent for the strong mayor system.

Klein said he is considering starting a business, and he may become involved in some way to try to heal the city's racial troubles. But he is done with politics. "They had their chance," he said.