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Black voters see victory by Fischer as their own

Between feeding customers at the family-owned restaurant and chatting up the media, Michael Atwater was feeling very good Wednesday.

"I'm enjoying a day of victory," he said. "Mayor David Fischer owes us, the black community. He was shaking in his boots last night until our precincts started coming in.

"We showed last night that our votes accounted for him continuing in office, and he needs to understand that."

Fischer says he does understand.

"Sure, I have no problem with that," he said. "We did well in those precincts in the last election, too, and we will continue our efforts in those neighborhoods."

Challenger Bill Klein was leading Fischer early in the vote count Tuesday, but was swamped when votes from the black and racially mixed neighborhoods south of Central Avenue came in. Fischer finally prevailed by six percentage points.

Atwater, who manages Atwater's Cafeteria at 895 22nd Ave. S, said Fischer now must deliver on promises to find ways to engage young people and support local businesses in the neighborhoods hit by racial disturbances in October and November.

"We've got to make young people understand they are important," he said. "We have to make local businessmen the symbols of success, not the drug seller."

Fischer can move in that direction by making sure city businesses receive city contracts, he said.

Klein failed to dent Fischer's support in the black and mixed neighborhoods, Atwater said, "because people knew that Fischer's administration has tried its damndest to make a difference here."

Klein was not well enough known, he said, and people remained suspicious of his military background and his support from former backers of Ernest Curtsinger.

"We don't need the city to be run like a military base," Atwater said. "We just need a level playing field for everybody."

The Rev. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church did not formally endorse Klein in the race, but was widely seen as supporting him.

"His biggest problem was that he was a newcomer, and that means a lot to people in St. Pete," said Sykes, who heads the Coalition of African-American Leadership that has been critical of the mayor. "People tend to vote for people they're familiar with.

"Fischer evidently had the approval of the African-American community . . . he showed that he had their trust."

Sykes said he "absolutely" would continue to work with the mayor.

Fischer said economic development in the city's poorer neighborhoods is essential, but only part of a solution that will take time.

"It's not just a question of jobs," he said. "We have to lift the population with education and training. All cities have these problems to some degree, and I accept the challenge to get at those root causes here."