In a town where race and politics have been an uneasy mix, City Commission candidate Ernie Bach last week complained that a weekly newspaper doctored a photo of his African-American opponent, Rodney Woods, to make Woods' skin appear lighter.
In an e-mail to the Largo Leader on Friday, Bach said he had received phone messages asking him what "the Leader was trying to accomplish by enhancing Mr. Woods' picture, and making him so light that his front page picture is almost unrecognizable."
"Then I got my Leader," Bach wrote, "and sure enough, it appears Mr. Woods has undergone an amazing Michael Jackson-like transformation.
"SHAME ON YOU," he concludes.
Darryl Paulson, a professor of government at the University of South Florida, said Bach is the one who should be ashamed.
"What an awful approach. Bigotry knows no bounds," said Paulson, who specializes in elections. "If that's the most important concern he has in the Largo election, voters will come to the conclusion they need to look elsewhere for someone to put on the City Commission."
Bach, 68, who served on the City Commission in the late 1980s, is running against Woods, 48, for Seat 3 on the City Commission. The seat is being vacated by Commissioner Pat Gerard, who is running against incumbent Mayor Bob Jackson.
If elected, Woods would be Largo's first black commissioner, though he has generally not made race an issue in the campaign. During a candidates' forum last week, he noted that he didn't look like the rest of the people in the room, but he felt at home.
Bach's e-mail, however, could raise the role that race plays in the March 7 election.
Bach said he sent the e-mail because the picture "looks like it's obviously been touched-up," but he wouldn't say why the picture's quality mattered to him.
"I am not a racist," Bach said. "I have a lot of very close friends of African-American background."
But Woods said his opponent's complaint was telling.
"That's why people who know him from the past are not voting for him," Woods said. "I will continue on the high, dignified road. I will not stoop down to the muddy waters that Ernie Bach loves to play in."
Tom Germond, executive editor of Tampa Bay Newspapers, which publishes the weekly Largo Leader, said he hasn't heard a complaint such as Bach's in 30 years of journalism.
"I was shocked that anybody, particularly a political candidate, would think, for whatever reason, we would doctor a photograph," Germond said.
"I can assure you and all of our readers and the citizens of Largo that however it looked was part of the production process," he said.
Woods was originally prompted to get involved in public service, he said, by the conflict between the city and the Greater Ridgecrest area over the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.
In recent years, the communities have come together to celebrate the holiday. And Woods, who is vice chair of the city's Public Works/Environmental Services board, has become more involved in city government.
Largo's population is about 93 percent white, and the city has had a history of racial intolerance. But city leaders have worked to improve Largo's reputation: After a far-reaching human rights ordinance failed in August 2003, two months later the city beefed up its internal policy prohibiting discrimination.
Woods said the city and its residents are on the right track.
"The majority of people want to move forward and the city is going to move forward with or without Ernie Bach," Woods said.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.