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Fischer chipped at Klein support

Published Oct. 1, 2005

Mayor David Fischer will begin another term leading a divided city, but the divisions are less severe than four years ago.

Fischer's secret for pulling himself from the brink of a stunning upset Tuesday: chipping away at challenger Bill Klein's strength in voting precincts along central areas of the city, maintaining overwhelming support among black voters and generally keeping his numbers around 40 percent everywhere else.

The mayor, who finished second in the primary, picked up a handful of precincts just north of Central Avenue. In neighborhoods where the racial disturbances occurred, he won seven precincts with better than 90 percent of the vote.

Klein's best showing was in a small precinct off 38th Avenue N and 16th Street, where he won 68 percent.

"I offered the city my leadership, and it obviously didn't want it," said Klein, who said he had no intention of congratulating Fischer.

The day after the vote, Klein and his campaign advisers chalked up the results mostly to dirty campaign tricks in predominantly black neighborhoods. They pointed in particular to a flier distributed by the Sevell Brown-led Coalition of African American Leadership that compared Klein to former police chief and 1993 mayoral challenger Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger.

"A lot more people would have voted for me without that Curtsinger thing, and I probably would have won the election," said Klein, a retired Army general who had campaigned for support among black voters.

Unlike the 1993 contest between Fischer and Curtsinger, however, the nearly 3,800-vote spread this time around was wide enough that black votes were not the single deciding factor.

Klein's support was soft enough citywide that he would have needed nearly 50 percent of votes in key black precincts to overcome Fischer. He had been aiming for 20 percent to 25 percent of the black vote.

At the same time, Fischer clearly owes a great deal to the black community, who backed him despite Klein's suggestion that the disturbances amounted to Fischer's report card on race relations.

He promises that turning around the economic problems plaguing the inner city will be the main priority.

The mayor also came back from a startlingly weak primary finish by embracing some of Klein's chief platform planks; he stressed his intention to make personnel changes in his administration, and he talked of reviewing code enforcement programs and public safety.

Don't expect immediate changes, however. Fischer said Wednesday he plans to take some time off to recharge his batteries and then make changes. In the meantime, he said he would not speculate on individual members of his administrative staff.

Fischer's campaign strategy after his weak primary finish was to mobilize supporters and push harder to remind voters that many good things had occurred in St. Petersburg over the past four years.

Perhaps more important, he hammered the theme of known commodity versus unknown commodity, repeatedly pointing out his decades of community involvement and Klein's lack of involvement.

Going up against Klein's energized, highly visible grass-roots campaign, the Fischer campaign focused its energies after the primary largely on precincts in central St. Petersburg neighborhoods that Klein had narrowly won in the primary.

The incumbent managed to flip several of them to his side, including his home precinct of Snell Isle, the Kenwood precinct that City Council member Leslie Curran had carried in the primary and neighborhoods such as the Old Northeast and Crescent Lake.

The mayor's campaign more or less wrote off far-west St. Petersburg neighborhoods, where Fischer has always fared poorly. "That's an area that seems to always want change. We work with them a lot, but I don't know what the psyche is out there," said Fischer, whose neighborhood improvement efforts extended throughout the city.

"If you took the neighborhood association members we did very well, but that misses a lot of people. The people who aren't involved don't recognize what we've been doing as readily," Fischer said.

There is some evidence, though, that those neighborhood outreach efforts had a slight impact. Klein won Tyrone-area precincts with more than 60 percent of the vote, but those same precincts gave Curtsinger more than 70 percent of the vote in 1993.

"If you have 1,000 people voting in a precinct and 400 vote for you, it's not like everybody's against you," said Rick Baker, one of Fischer's political advisers.