MAXWELL: Does a local black revolutionary have a chance at mayor?

1/28/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Omali Yeshitela, the 59-year-old president of the National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, is running for mayor of St. Petersburg. He assures all interviewers that he is not in the race simply to air his ideas and positions on issues. He says he believes he can win, that he can overcome Rick Baker’s money and political clout, that he can more than compete with former City Council members Kathleen Ford, Larry Williams and the rest of the pack.

As one of the city’s prominent civil rights leaders, who never backs away from a chance to champion the causes of the city’s south side, Yeshitela is seen by many to be one of the most controversial figures ever to run for mayor of St. Petersburg.

His fame, or infamy, began in December 1966, when he ripped down a racist mural in City Hall and marched through the streets with it. He was convicted, had his civil rights taken away and served a 2{-year jail term. Since then, he has been an outspoken critic of local politics, politicians and law enforcement.

During the last two years, and especially in recent months, he has become a legitimate, major player in local politics. Some argue that he has joined the mainstream and has decided to work as an insider.

Although the School Board has rejected his application, Yeshitela wants to establish a charter school, the Marcus Garvey Academy, that will serve African-American children at risk of dropping out of school or failing. Currently, his organization operates an after-school program for neighborhood children.

Even more, he is now included in many high-level discussions and planning sessions related to the so-called Challenge Zone.

A crucial question, however, is whether Yeshitela has repaired his reputation enough to be a viable mayoral candidate. Many prominent leaders on Yeshitela’s campaign steering committee _ including real estate agent Lou Brown, the Rev. Manual Sykes, veteran civil rights leader Perkins Shelton, educator Doug Tuthill, New Beginnings Development Corp. Executive Director Rodney Bennett, attorney Guy Burns and Bishop John Copeland _ certainly believe that their man is right for the job.

Q: This is your first run for major political office. Why are you running at this time, and what sets you apart from your many opponents?

A: My overall theme is the need for strong, innovative and courageous leadership that could mobilize a St. Petersburg _ black, white and others _ united in financial prosperity. Up to now this has not happened because politicians have been limited by cynicism, fear and a politics of divisiveness.

The cynicism has mostly been on the part of white politicians who might want to do the best things but who do not take positions that might move the city toward a united prosperity because it is assumed that white people will not vote for them if they advance a program that embraces the interests of the black community or the south side as among the community of shared interests in this city.

The fear is usually on the part of black politicians who will not raise issues important to their own community because of an assumption that white monied interests will not support them with the financial support necessary to fund their campaigns. Obviously, this locks us permanently into the status quo, for there can be no forward movement with politics of cynicism and fear in control.

Even so, the politics of divisiveness is probably the most insidious force that has to be taken on. This is the politics that assume it necessary to play one community against another for political advantage. It assumes that any advances for the black community must necessarily be of a plot to come at the expense of the white community. I am convinced that this is not necessary.

Q: Many people see you as a kind of cultural, pan-African revolutionary who has no sense of economics and the business-oriented efforts needed to keep a large city like St. Petersburg operating. They doubt that you can help improve the economic plight of the residents in south St. Pete. How do you respond to these critics?

A: I believe that a program which has at its core the need to build economic development and community commerce for the black community can be seen to be advantageous to the entire city and all its citizens. Community commerce would mean an expanded economy for the city. It would grow the city’s economy. It would have positive impact on the city’s tax base, grow and improve the housing stock, lower the unemployment and crime rate, place more money into the local economy with all the implications for spinoff associated with that.

St. Petersburg is a tourist city that could benefit from the involvement of the black community in the industry as full partners, capable of taking advantage of the growing black tourist market, including the incredible potential located in black family reunions alone. There are other things, particularly in the non-traditional economy that my leadership could speak to, such as the recording industry that could take advantage of the huge resource of talented black rappers, singers, etc., that has no avenue of expression. The list is long.

Q: Seriously, can you, a black man _ a controversial one at that _ win the mayoral race in this mostly white, Republican city?

A: The answer to that question should be obvious. In the last two elections, it was the black vote that made the difference in electing David Fischer. In his race against Bill Kline, Fischer actually came in second to Kline in the primary. It seems reasonable to assume that there is a great possibility that I can carry the black vote and win the primary, especially with the split that will occur with the large number of candidates in the race. Then, the task would become winning a large enough percentage of the white community that voted for Fischer in the highly polarized last two mayoral elections.

Q: Your past as an activist is controversial, to say the least. In addition to the infamous mural confrontation, you, along with your organization, have been accused of demagoguing _ if not starting _ the racial unrest of 1997. You also called for the executions of the mayor, who has become one of your allies, and then-Police Chief Darrel Stephens. Regarding the black community, you also describe the St. Petersburg Police Department an “occupying army.” Some of this stuff can be seen as inflammatory. Can you assure voters that you are not too far on the fringe to be mayor?

A: There is the question of my political reputation and history. Clearly, negatives can be seen here. But there are also positives that can work for me. I am of that generation of the 1960s, which also included whites who believed that the people could be a determining factor in shaping their environment.

We were the ones who made the fight for civil rights, women’s and gay rights, the rights of workers and the protection of the environment. Many of the issues beg resolution even today. But there are millions of baby boomers who participated in or sympathized with this movement. Many of them respect me for having never given up even as they have moved on themselves.

My politics have always reflected the possibilities of our times. After being denied civil rights for almost 35 years since the mural was torn down, all my personal involvement in political life has necessarily been from outside the system. However, my participation in the mayor’s election almost immediately after a restoration of basic civil rights clearly demonstrates that my belief system is not hostile to the democratic ascendancy to power through the electoral process.

Indeed, most of my life has been spent attempting to make sure that the democratic process is available to everyone. In 1966, for example, I was an organizer of voter education and registration in six Florida counties in a program headed up by Vernon Jordan. This is not a repudiation of any of my core beliefs _ just a statement that prevailing circumstances in the United States and the state of Florida have influenced my politics just as I am sure they have most people’s.

All indicators suggest that people are tired of the typical politicians who will say anything to be elected but who believe in nothing. Certainly no one can claim that I don’t believe in anything. Moreover, most people know that I will fight for what I believe in _ even if it means going against the grain. Now, as opposed to the assumption that only the black community has access to my leadership, it now becomes available for the entire city and all its citizens.

Q: One question in the minds of many voters is whether the new mayor, whoever that person is, will retain current Police Chief Goliath Davis. His tenure has been somewhat fractious, and much of the conflict has involved matters of race. If elected, would you keep Davis?

A: I fully support Goliath Davis as police chief and think the willingness to keep him on as police chief should be a determining factor of support. Davis has been an incredibly significant force for reform within the police department and should be given a mandate to clean up the police department and get rid of the remaining negative elements that help to keep the city divided.

I believe that the most important factor in public safety and crime prevention is the participation of the people. Obviously, all the people cannot participate if there are communities that experience the police as a rude, often racist and bullying, occupying army. Nor is this solely an issue of the black community. Davis has made courtesy a standard of the department. This means there is an expectation that the homeless and poor of all ethnicities are expected to be treated as fairly as anyone else by the police.

While some are making much of the lawsuits being filed against Goliath Davis by disgruntled cops, think of what the cities of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and others will be paying out to citizens because of police misbehavior. Think of what the city of St. Petersburg paid out in lost revenue because of the consequences of the TyRon Lewis killing.

Q: Poverty in south St. Petersburg is troublesome. Many of the new jobs being created in the county are north of Ulmerton Road, but many of the low-income residents on the south side do not have personal transportation to drive to and from these jobs even if they got them. How would you help solve this problem?

A: This is something that can be affected by creating a meaningful public transportation system. Right now we have the contradiction of traffic congestion and dirty air because of too many people in cars, on the one hand, while on the other hand we have a community of bicycle riders on the south side because so many people cannot afford automobiles. Why not create a real public transportation system that takes people where they want to go instead of the current system that will only get people to the malls and back and forth from some of the jobs? This is an example of a united St. Petersburg in shared prosperity. The transportation system will create jobs, clean air and solve pressing problems in the most depressed community in the city.

Q: From time to time, the Albert Whitted Airport makes news. Many voters want it shut down so that more residents can enjoy the area, much like the general public has access to most of St. Petersburg’s other shoreline. Would you support an effort to change the use of the airport?

A: A lot of publicly owned land is in the possession of a small, elite group of airplane buffs. At minimum, that land must become accessible to the public. However, there must be a way that protects the environment and the beach front while encouraging some kind of privately owned controlled development that would put the property on the tax rolls.