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FORD, FOSTER SPAR FOR BLACK VOTE

Both are working to make up ground after ceding the minority vote in the primary.

The windows at Atwater's Cafeteria are papered with red and blue campaign signs from candidates hoping to bolster their name recognition among patrons at the popular Midtown political lunch stop.

Noticeably absent: signs belonging to St. Petersburg's two mayoral candidates.

With less than two months until the Nov. 3 general election, Bill Foster and Kathleen Ford have made few inroads into the city's black neighborhoods. Voters there overwhelmingly ignored their candidacies during the primary, and few black community leaders have made endorsements in the race.

In the primary, Foster and Ford essentially conceded those neighborhoods to rival Deveron Gibbons, an African-American who grew up in Midtown and was supported by many of the area's business owners and political leaders. Instead, Ford and Foster concentrated on their burgeoning bases in north and west St. Petersburg.

Gibbons overwhelmingly won the city's majority-black precincts, capturing 4,396 of the 7,247 votes cast. Ford was a much distant second, with 778 votes. Foster wasn't far behind her, with 729 votes.

The pair's weak showing begs the question: Is there enough time left for Ford and Foster to sway black voters?

Political history in St. Petersburg suggests candidates can win office if they secure the downtown, Old Northeast and Midtown vote. That formula helped Mayor Rick Baker win office in 2001 and 2005.

Foster, 46, began overtly reaching out to the black community in January, when he predicted he would become the city's first black mayor at a NAACP event by addressing the community's needs. Foster, a lawyer, has done free legal work for low-income Midtown residents and is a NAACP member.

"I just keep doing what I've been doing," said Foster, a former City Council member.

Foster wants the Police Department to more aggressively pursue drugs, prostitution and burglaries in Midtown. He supports Baker's efforts to revitalize Midtown.

His base in Midtown shows signs of growth.

Gibbons, a fellow Republican, endorsed him Tuesday, and a handful of high-profile Gibbons supporters quickly followed.

A stack of Foster campaign signs sat outside the tax office of former City Council member David Welch last week. Welch said he and others were crafting a plan to help Foster win.

On Friday, restaurateur Mike Atwater also decided to throw his support to Foster.

"I support my candidate's judgment and have now decided to follow suit and support Bill Foster," Atwater said. "It appears that he has integrity. He believes there is a God, he prays a lot and he is a fourth-generation resident."

Atwater is a notable voice in Midtown politics, but it's unclear how much weight the average voter will give Gibbons' endorsement.

For example, Gibbons scored the most endorsements - including the support of Gov. Charlie Crist - in the primary, but finished third. Ford, meanwhile, secured few endorsements but finished second.

Ford, 52, said she will win over black residents the same way she earned the support of other voters. Her campaign has called for lower property taxes, more crime prevention measures and better after-school programs.

In recent months, she's reached out to neighborhood leaders in Harbordale, Bartlett Park and the Old Southeast and met with people of influence in the black community, such as publisher Gypsy Gallardo, St. Petersburg NAACP president Ray Tampa and state Rep. Darryl Rouson.

"We pretty much predicated Deveron would get most of the African-American vote in the primary," she said. "But, more or less, we still tried to get our message out."

As mayor, Ford said, she would ensure black contractors get a fair shot at city contracts. She also would stop using the word Midtown, a phrase created by Mayor Rick Baker, and simply refer to neighborhoods by name. Crime and economic issues are Midtown's biggest challenges, she said.

"We want safe neighborhoods for everyone," said Ford, a lawyer.

If the candidates can't engage black voters, it is possible many will sit the race out.

Turnout in the city's black-majority precincts was 21 percent in the primary, compared with 23 percent citywide.

"If it wasn't high with Deveron being in the race, I don't see it being high now," the NAACP's Tampa said.

Rouson said he thinks the black community is having a hard time deciding which candidate to trust.

"There is this confusion and there is this divide in the community about who is the best candidate for the continued advancement of Midtown," said Rouson, who is being courted by both candidates. "There is enough time now to make inroads, and to some extent they have started."

Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8846.

If you go

See the mayoral candidates

Bill Foster and Kathleen Ford are scheduled to attend a forum moderated by historian Ray Arsenault at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Lakewood High School's auditorium. City Council candidates also will speak.For more information on the St. Petersburg mayor or council races, go to elections.tampabay.com.

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