Pinellas Democratic chairman tells pastor he's 'persona non grata' if he runs for Congress

The Rev. Manuel Sykes
The Rev. Manuel Sykes
Published May 1, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County's Democratic chairman left a bluntly worded voicemail telling well-known St. Petersburg pastor Manuel Sykes he would be "persona non grata" if he followed through with plans to run for Congress.

Sykes was the only announced Democratic candidate in Pinellas County's 13th Congressional District, but he said Wednesday he has now decided not to run after all.

In the voicemail, Mark Hanisee said party officials had spoken to the offices of two key Democrats, former congressional candidate Alex Sink and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

"Neither one of them are endorsing you, nor is the (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee). They have another candidate," Hanisee said. He added, "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. You're going to be getting a call from Rick Kriseman, if you haven't already, telling you to back off. Have a nice weekend."

Sykes said the comments disappointed him, and "the party needs to be purged of these kinds of hindrances to its progress and progressiveness." He said all candidates should be allowed and encouraged to run.

Angela Owens, an attorney who was working with Sykes' campaign, said she listened to the recording and found it "appalling."

"It was shocking to me … because it's against the rules," Owens said. "Aren't they supposed to support Democratic candidates?"

Sykes, 57, of Bethel Community Baptist Church, said comments from Hanisee and some other party officials were a factor in his decision not to run.

As a first-time candidate likely to be outspent by Republicans, Sykes said one of his main strategies was to work within the party organization, getting to know people in Democratic clubs who could spread the word of his campaign.

But "when I have my own party leaders blocking me, I knew that was sort of being cut off at the knees," he said.

He said he had had a conversation with Hanisee before getting the voicemail and had also spoken to another Democratic Party official who disliked his chances because he said the district is overwhelmingly white, and he said white voters are less likely to forgive past transgressions than African-American voters are. Sykes was the subject of a 2007 news article about a child he had out of wedlock, a subject that might well have come up during the campaign.

Hanisee said in an interview that someone was spreading rumors that Kriseman and Sink had endorsed Sykes, which he said wasn't true. Sink said in an interview that she admires Sykes and encouraged him to explore a possible run. But she also told Hanisee that rumors about her endorsing Sykes were not true because she was waiting to see who else might join the race.

Hanisee said that was part of the reason for his call to Sykes. He added, "I was only advising him that this was going to be an uphill battle.

"Listen," Hanisee said in an unprompted comment, "to me it has nothing to do with whether he is white or back; he is just not a credible candidate in this particular district."

Why not?

"Because he lives in another district, he's never run for office before, (and) he has no prior political experience. If you check the demographics, it's like a 2 percent, 3 percent African-American district."

Sykes had previously acknowledged that he lives outside the 13th district; he used to live inside it, but then its boundaries changed. He had said he would move into the district to run in it.

Regarding Hanisee's comments about Kriseman and Sink, Sykes said he talked to both of them, and both were helpful. He said Kriseman "told me to do what's in my heart to do. He's a friend." Sink told him she believed he would run a good race, he said. Both also warned him it would be a daunting task.

Kriseman could not be reached Wednesday night.

Hanisee said he did not know which candidate the DCCC was backing. Late Wednesday, no Democrats had filed to run for the seat against newly elected Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores.