ST. PETERSBURG - Some of the blows directed at Mayor Bill Foster in the first mayoral debate last month came from black residents wearing T-shirts supporting mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford.
It's a similar picture in much of predominantly black Midtown neighborhood, with Ford campaign signs dotting more yards and store fronts than any of her opponents.
That should be good news for Ford. Political lore in St. Petersburg politics holds that candidates need the support of the city's black neighborhoods, which often vote predominantly for one candidate, to push them over the top to victory.
But data from recent elections suggests that support is no guarantee of victory. Of the 37,000 votes cast in the 2009 mayoral primary election, only 18 percent were cast by black voters. That fell to 12 percent in the runoff election held in November that year.
That has campaign staff of Foster and Rick Kriseman, regarded as Ford's main opponents, confident they can still beat her in a runoff election, even if she draws strong support from neighborhoods south of Central Avenue. They also point to a May 30 poll commissioned by SaintPetersBlog.com that shows 18 percent of likely voters and 28 percent of minority voters are still undecided.
"The hype is that it's the only demographic that historically has stuck together in an overwhelming margin," said Cesar Fernandez, campaign manager for Kriseman. "The real story is the chunk of undecided voters. That's true in predominantly white neighborhoods, but also in African-American neighborhoods."
Still, the pattern of the city's black neighborhoods largely rallying behind a single candidate has made them a coveted demographic for those seeking office.
In some Midtown precincts, black voters make up as much as 90 percent of voters. When Rick Baker defeated Ford in the runoff election in 2001, his level of support exceeded 90 percent in some of those precincts.
The support of Midtown voters in the 2009 primary election was not enough to propel Deveron Gibbons, a politically well-connected black businessman, into the runoff election. On average, Gibbons polled more than 70 percent in mainly black precincts but gathered too few votes elsewhere and trailed behind both Ford and Foster by more than 2,000 votes.
Much of his support switched to Foster for the general election, with an average of about 66 percent of voters in predominantly black precincts picking him over Ford.
An analysis of the result, though, shows that the key to Foster's victory was the trouncing he gave Ford in the northeast parts of the city, his old District 3 stomping ground from his time on the City Council. In precincts there, Foster beat Ford by a total of more than 1,500 votes, more than half of his overall winning margin of 2,530 votes.
A similar level of support in a runoff this year would be more likely to keep Foster in his job than winning the vote of the black community, said Jack Hebert, a political consultant working with the Foster campaign.
"That has been an urban myth for any number of years," Hebert said. "With over 20 percent of registered voters in the city in that area, it's important; but I don't subscribe to the fact that how that part of the city goes, so the election goes."
The SaintPetersBlog.com poll, which has a margin of error of 4.7 percent, showed Ford and Foster in a virtual dead heat. Ford, though, is expected to benefit from increased turnout for the referendum on the city's new pier because of her decision to sue the city when it rejected a citizen's petition seeking to save the inverted pyramid pier.
Among minority voters, Ford has a clear lead in head-to-head matchups with Foster and Kriseman.
Wengay Newton, the City Council's lone black member, said that is the result of Ford volunteering for a literacy program and working on voting issues.
"Even though she's not an elected official, she's been visible in the community," Newton said. "She's putting in the work.
By contrast, Foster has had to deal with the fallout of Sweetbay's decision in February to close its store in Midtown. Also, the number of complaints about police shootings and pursuits has increased, said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the local chapter of the NAACP.
Discontent with his leadership was evident at the Midtown debate, with particular criticism coming from former police chief and deputy mayor Goliath Davis, a prominent figure in the black community whom Foster fired.
Foster's response was to emphasize his role in bringing Sylvia's restaurant to the Manhattan Casino and his role in moving forward plans for a new St. Pete College campus and a new policy that rewards construction firms working on city projects who hire local workers, including those with criminal records.
"These are real things that are happening now," Foster said.
Kriseman's poll numbers among minorities is just 8 percent. But his supporters point out that he was endorsed by black Democratic state lawmaker Darryl Rouson, to date the only endorsement from a prominent black community leader.
Recent mayoral elections have often reflected a divide between residential neighborhoods and the city's urban core, said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government and Florida politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
"Many neighborhoods felt city administration and the mayor were paying too much attention to downtown development."
That often led to an unusual coalition of residents from downtown, Snell Isle and Midtown voting to keep the incumbent mayor in office, he said.
Foster's dwindling support among minorities could change that pattern.
"The pier issue has re-energized this downtown verus the neighborhood division again," Paulson said. "Foster's task will be more difficult because it doesn't look like he's got that overwhelming support from the black community again."