Prominent St. Petersburg Pastor Manuel Sykes changed his party registration to Republican on Monday, but stopped short of endorsing Gov. Rick Scott for re-election, as GOP officials had hoped.
Still stinging from the Democratic Party's maneuvers to muscle him out of a congressional race earlier this year, Sykes said he met a week ago with local Republicans who urged him to consider their party.
He was impressed with their pitch. And after Gov. Rick Scott came to Sykes' Bethel Community Baptist Church on Sunday, Sykes prayerfully considered whether to endorse the Republican incumbent, as well.
Sykes ultimately decided against going that far, and officials hastily canceled a Monday afternoon news conference that had been scheduled to trumpet the announcement.
Sykes cited several reasons for his decision, but one of them was loyalty to Democratic nominee Charlie Crist, who is from St. Petersburg. Sykes said Crist stood by him recently in a difficult episode when the NAACP decided to suspend its St. Petersburg branch, of which Sykes is president.
"I consider him a friend and I consider him a friend during tough times," Sykes said in an interview.
All told, Sykes' decision amounted to good PR for the Republican Party, but not the dramatic coup some GOP officials thought they had in their grasp.
Sykes' party switch comes at a time in which the two main candidates for governor are running in a close race and looking for any edge. Crist, a former Republican governor and now Democratic nominee, hopes to win a high percentage of Florida's African-American vote. For that reason, an endorsement from such an influential figure in St. Petersburg's African-American community could have been a coup for Scott, and a disaster for Crist.
Politically speaking, this has been a tumultuous year for Sykes.
Sykes, 57, had decided in spring to run for the Democratic nomination to a Pinellas congressional seat that would pit him against newly elected Republican David Jolly, and to focus on issues including health care, immigration reform and equal pay for women. "I support the president in his position on these three," he said at the time.
But things changed after Pinellas Democratic Chairman Mark Hanisee left a bluntly worded voice mail telling Sykes he would be "persona non grata" if he followed through with plans to run.
Sykes eventually bowed out, but he said in an interview Monday that it had been painful "when you are rejected by the people you thought were working with you - they attempted to destroy my credibility."
Then last month came the state NAACP's decision to suspend its St. Petersburg branch, which it explained only in vague terms.
Sykes said he felt some Democrats backed away from him after that, but Crist stood by. "To me, that's a basic value that I cannot override. It's how I grew up, it's how friends protect each other and walk with each other," he said.
Nonetheless, Sykes said he was willing to listen when a Republican friend approached him. He said that led to a meeting last week at Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill with Sen. Jack Latvala, Rep. Ed Hooper, Pinellas Commissioner John Morroni and Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
The Republicans pledged to work with him on economic issues, including finding ways to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society. Sykes said he was especially impressed with what they said about working together collegially.
Sykes said Latvala told him, "Listen, I'm a Republican, but I do what I think is right. I don't always follow the party line." Hooper said that although some of his colleagues support the Greenlight Pinellas transportation plan, he does not. Likewise, they said they would welcome Sykes into the party, even knowing they would have some differences.
"I felt I was genuinely accepted, even though they knew there were certain things that I didn't agree with," Sykes said.
But, Sykes added, "it got sticky" when he considered endorsing Scott. In addition to his loyalty to Crist, he said in a Facebook message that if he supported Scott, "I realize that my motives would not be pure in doing so."
Also, Sykes said in an interview, "I support and I am proud of President Obama ... I cannot support using ads that disparage him." That's another thing that would have made it hard for him to support Scott, he said.
Times staff writer Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Contact Curtis Krueger at email@example.com or (727) 892-8232. Follow @ckruegertimes.