Showdown at St. Pete City Council 

Baker's clout is tested in race for vacant seat.

Last November, when two self-styled "outsiders" narrowly won seats on St. Pete's City Council, disaffected neighborhood leaders heralded the vote as a mandate for the council to address issues of fiscal responsibility and public safety that had long been ignored.

Yet Wengay Newton and Bill Dudley represented only two votes on a seven-member council that had invariably supported Baker for years. It wasn't until March that the dissenters would see another opportunity: one of the mayor's strongest allies, Earnest Williams, left the council to run for state House district 55 (losing to Darryl Rouson), and Karl Nurse, former three-term president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, suggested he'd apply for the open council seat. Within weeks of his announcement, an online petition garnered over 200 names asking the City Council to appoint him.

"It really took off on its own," says Kevin King, a longtime Democratic activist who created the petition. "Hopefully it demonstrates a real level of high support for Karl."

To his supporters, Nurse, an Old Southeast resident, seems a perfect fit to represent District 6, a diverse swath of South St. Pete that includes most of Midtown, gentrified neighborhoods like Roser Park and Coquina Key, and part of downtown. He owns his own business, the printing company Baytech Labels, and serves on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

But District 6 politics are always a little messy.

After Nurse announced his decision to run, another well-connected St. Pete figure applied for the seat: Dr. David Welch, 80, a former city councilmember who represented the district twice during the '80s and mid-'90s. Welch (father of Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch) is owner of Welch Accounting Services on 16th Street S. and serves on the St. Petersburg Housing Authority board of commissioners.

He's also an enthusiastic supporter of Mayor Baker. Nurse has clashed with Baker several times and ran against him for mayor in 2001.

"Mayoral politics is the real 600-pound gorilla in this room, which is determining how [the councilmembers] will vote," says Darden Rice, who ran for the District 6 seat against Williams and Uhuru president Dwight Waller in 2005 (Nurse was her campaign manager). "I think some of the councilmembers are looking at their allegiances to Mayor Baker."

"Baker will do anything to see Karl Nurse not get that seat," Rice continues. "Baker clearly does not want Nurse on that council, and he's recruited an 80-year-old man to do it."

(Baker denies asking Welch to run; when asked, Welch gives a flat "no comment.")

And there's another factor in play: race. African-Americans have held the District 6 seat for nearly 30 years. The district's reputation as a "black seat" comes into play whenever a white candidate runs in the district, as it did when Rice ran in 2005. Some suggest race would figure into this election as well.

Last month, City Councilman Wengay Newton -- now the lone black member of the council -- told the St. Petersburg Times in an interview about the District 6 race, "This is a predominantly black district, so I think you have to take race into consideration."

The other candidates vying for the seat -- youth minister Deborah Green, Pinellas County Black Republicans president Cassandra Jackson and Gwendolyn Reese, community activist and CEO of Infinite Solutions -- are also African-American. Jackson and Reese have run for office before; Green is a political newcomer. (Green, Reese and Jackson did not return calls for comment.)

The City Council will interview candidates for the seat in a 4 p.m. special session on April 24 and select the new councilmember to serve out Williams' remaining two years.

"This is an extremely challenging time for any new councilmember," CONA president Barbara Heck wrote in an e-mail to CL. "The issues -- budget, taxes, stadium redevelopment -- confronting St. Petersburg are huge and not easily or quickly resolved." CONA has not endorsed any candidate, but Heck explains neighborhoods are looking for "a 'do-er' not a 'learn-er.'"

Welch is weighing heavily on his experience as a former councilmember. He won't detail the issues he'd like to put forth on the council but insists, "I can get things done." (He also won't comment on the Rays' proposal, because he's serving on the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce's blue ribbon task force on the stadium.)

Nurse says the stadium, city budget and public safety would be his priorities if selected. "There's not going to be enough money to continue what we're doing unless we change how we do things," he says. "I've got some ideas on how we can save money."

Some neighborhood activists just hope he gets the chance. "Certainly, a message was sent when [Newton and Dudley] were elected," says Matthew Culp, an active Palmetto Park resident and vocal Baker critic. "But [Nurse's appointment to the council] would seal the deal and allow these issues to move forward."


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