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ONE OF TAMPA BAY'S MOST PROMINENT BLACK MINISTERS AND DEMOCRATS POISED TO ENDORSE RICK SCOTT

Adam C. Smith, Times Political Editor

Sunday, October 5, 2014 7:58pm

One of Tampa Bay's most prominent African-American ministers, the Rev. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, is poised to endorse Republican Gov. Rick Scott's reelection campaign.

"I'm heavily leaning towards it," Rev. Sykes told the Times Sunday night, hours after the governor spoke at his church "I've got the rest of the night to pray about it."

Sykes, an active Democrat who had seriously considered running for congress earlier this year until he was shunned by party leaders, also confirmed that he is considering changing his registration to Republican.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist is counting on strong African-American support to beat Gov. Scott, and losing such a influential black leader in his own back yard to the Republican governor would, at the very least, be a big symbolic blow to Crist.

Sykes said he spoke to Gov. Scott by phone Wednesday and again Sunday in person.

"I have a pretty good comfort level with him now," Sykes said of the governor, who has enjoyed little African-American support in most public polls.

Elected Republican leaders from Pinellas have scheduled a news conference at 2 p.m. Monday at the Historic Seaboard C.A. Cafe on 22nd Street Southf or "an important political announcement"

He has disagreed with Scott on plenty of issues, from restoration of civil rights for ex-felons to the Affordable Care Act, but Sykes said Scott seemed sincere in explaining how everything he does is aimed at creating jobs and opportunity for all Floridians.

In his five-minute talk to the Bethel Community congregation, Scott talked about his childhood growing up in public housing, the son of a single mother who was a devout Christian.

"I never forgot my roots or that Jesus Christ is my savior," Scott said. "What I try to do today is to help people get jobs." Then he gave out a phone number in Tallahassee for anyone who's looking for a job."

Said Sykes, "I do see him differently than just wanting to give to the rich at the expense of the poor."

It has been a rocky political year for Sykes, who until earlier this year had been membership chairman of the Pinellas Democratic Executive Committee, responsible for recruiting new members to the party.

After Democrat Alex Sink lost a special congressional election against Republican David Jolly, Sykes stepped forward to challenge Jolly in November when no other prominent Democrats appeated interested. But local, state, and national party leaders discouraged and snubbed him, questioning whether an African-American candidate with some rocky personal and financial problems in his past could be competitive.

Pinellas Democratic Chairman Mark Hanisee left a blunt message on Sykes' voice mail in April: "You better hold off, or, like I told you Sunday night, you are going to be persona non grata. Take that to the bank. That's telling you the gospel truth."

Sykes did withdraw, and Democratic leaders united behind a rookie candidate from Hillsborough to run for the Pinellas seat, though that candidate dropped out after the Times raised questions about his resume.

Whatever loyalty Sykes had to the Democratic party disappeared then.

"I don't owe them anything," he said, suggesting party leaders had no interest in anything but him delivering black votes.

Sykes also had been president of the St. Petersburg NAACP branch, but last month the state NAACP ordered Sykes branch to cease operations. They cited irregularities in the branch's fiscal practices and programming, though Sykes said he was stunned by the sudden, drastic move.

He remains as committed as ever to helping the community.

"I try to work with the resources that God provides," Sykes said. "When they cut off the NAACP and the Democratic party, I have to look elsewhere."

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