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Over here, we're ready to order

We've been here before.

Fischer/Klein. Fischer/Curtsinger.

Even Bush/Gore.

They're over there.

We are perennially here. Here is our Stammtisch, our table permanently reserved for regulars. It is the table assigned to minorities in a representative democracy. We sit over here _ usually physically and philosophically _ and cast our votes for one of two candidates sitting over there. Frequently the deciding factor is that one of them smiles at us more often.

The situation in which black voters in St. Petersburg now find themselves _ sitting here trying to decide whether Rick Baker or Kathleen Ford, sitting over there, has the nicest smile _ is a familiar one. The difference this time is that many of those voters are saying the smile is not enough. This time, they've positioned themselves to get something for their votes.

So far, neither candidate has offered much more than the smile, with Baker's appearing to be only slightly more genuine.

In last month's nine-candidate faceoff, the area immediately south of Central Avenue, where its black population is concentrated, clearly favored Omali Yeshitela and his pledge to strengthen the city's economy by healing the economic woes in that area. Yet, says Yeshitela, neither of the survivors has beaten down his door, even though it is clear that a black landslide would again assure either candidate of victory.

As of Monday, he still had not thrown his support to either candidate.

No reason to, he says. Neither candidate has defined a commitment to economic growth , and he refuses to deliver a merely less-scary endorsement.

So what do the city's voters who see no reason to cast their votes for either candidate do? Do they sit this one out and hope they have a better choice in four years?

No. That's how we got here in the first place. That's a strategy that will always get us here, choosing between candidates who are over there. A boycott of the polls is not the way for black voters to build on the voice they've won in city governance; it is a sure way to diminish it.

Power at the polls should be the vehicle for proactive change, much preferred over reactive change in response to violence born of frustration. St. Petersburg's recent history has seen both. A big voter turnout is a much more constant, positive prod to an elected official than is a burned out building.

So black voters should turn out in record numbers March 27, no matter which candidate they choose, to pump their civic biceps, to show the next mayor that they have a voice in this city, whether he or she chooses to listen or not.

For either candidate to sit back and wait for the bulk of that vote to fall where it will is idiocy deserving of the fate that befalls the loser.

Baker can sit back and figure Ford's contempt for police chief Goliath Davis will push black voters to his camp.

Ford can sit back and expect Baker's ties to the Bushes to send a black majority her way.

But what does Baker do if Ford swallows even more of her venom and declares that, after looking at the records, public and internal, and searching her soul, she was wrong and that Davis has done an outstanding job and will remain as her chief?

What does Ford do if Baker swallows some of the meal swishing around in his mouth and lays out a program, replete with dollar amounts and staff requirements, that will support new businesses with funds and training, with emphasis on the folks who live in the southern parts of the city?

Either candidate can tip the scale in his or her direction that easily. And the move by either candidate will make the mayor's tenure a much smoother ride.

This energized, unprecedented coalition has vowed that the next city administration will not be allowed to ignore either of those concerns.

Is that extortion, as conservatives like to charge whenever minorities use their collective power to pull government's head in their direction? No, it's the electorate asking those elected to do their job.

That is not new. We've been here before.

What is different is that here has moved. Here used to be a hat-in-hand position, barely within shouting distance of the head table, where happiness came with any tidbit allowed to drift that way.

Now the table is within talking distance and comes with a menu, and the people sitting over here are ordering the same thing that has always been served over there.

So should Yeshitela issue an endorsement?

Of course he should _ the minute one of the candidates deserves it.

And if neither commits definite attention to the section of the city most in need of it, should voters in those areas abstain? Should they cast their votes for the candidate most likely to mess up so badly that he or she will be easier to defeat in a re-election bid, as some strategists have suggested?

The answer to both is a resounding no. Inattention from candidates should be the impetus for more voter activity, a more determined show of poll power that takes away inattention as an option. And trying to weather four years of the worst mayor you can elect, simply to have a weaker incumbent next time around, is silly. It ignores the amount of damage a bad mayor can do, possibly more than several succeeding good mayors could fix.

In the one week remaining, the candidate deserving to be mayor will make the choice clear to voters.

If no one does, flip a coin if you must, but vote.