Civic Discourse

By David Klement February 1, 2009

If there was one consistent theme throughout the fall political campaign and financial meltdown, it was leadership—or, rather, lack thereof. When worried Americans looked desperately for reassurance from a trusted leader in those panicky weeks of September and October, they didn’t find much comfort. Granted, the political momentum shifted to Barack Obama because his reaction seemed somewhat steadier than John McCain’s herky-jerky political response.

But you couldn’t say Obama offered the kind of solid assurance that anxious Americans desperately wanted as they watched their investment portfolios nosedive nearly 40 percent. Truth is, no one really seemed to know what to do; even Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson seemed flummoxed by the scale and speed of the meltdown. And then we saw former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan—Wall Street’s free-market darling for over 18 years—admitting to Congress that the financial collapse left him in a "state of shocked disbelief."

What we desperately wanted was to gather around the flat-screen, much like our parents did around the old Philco in the dark days following Pearl Harbor, and hear a leader say in a strong, calm tone something like, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Closer to home, we yearn for leadership, too. In Tallahassee, Gov. Crist is more of a cheerleader than a true leader as Florida undergoes its own financial meltdown. And where is the local champion who can bring Sarasota’s pro- and anti-growth factions together, who can lead us out of the spring-training maze, who can articulate the "green-community" vision I wrote about in my last column?

Coincidentally, it’s a perceived need for leadership that’s behind the elected mayor referendum that Sarasota voters will find on the ballot in city elections this spring. A proposed charter amendment would give the city an elected leader who is more than a figurehead, hopefully, a charismatic figure who will be able to unite the various factions and lead the city in a new direction. It’s not the strong-mayor form of municipal governance that some advocate, but it’s a step up from the mostly ceremonial role of the current weak-mayor system.

Was it coincidence or clever strategizing that a few months ago brought to Sarasota a role model for the kind of mayoral leadership that Sarasota needs? Perhaps the latter, since there were charter amendment petition forms at every seat for the Downtown Partnership’s annual dinner at the Hyatt Regency.

And the night's keynote speaker just happened to be St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker, who gave a glimpse of the difference that a strong, involved mayor can make. Baker’s report on his business-like approach to city governance and of his success in rejuvenating St. Pete energized the audience, most of whom remember well what a joke that city used to be. A thriving downtown? Safe, walkable neighborhoods? Progressive public schools? A vibrant business climate? Yes, all of this is happening in St. Petersburg, said Baker, mayor since 2001.

On that night, no one was arguing the point. For one thing, there wasn’t time. The mayor had to rush out as soon as his speech ended to be choppered back across the bay. Why? The city once known for green benches, a white-elephant stadium, frequent riots and a dead downtown was hosting the opening game of the World Series that night.

A visionary leader could have—and did. Baker and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays constituted a powerful lesson in leadership. Hopefully, the supporters of this city groping for a baseball team, a thriving downtown and a vision for economic renewal got it.

The World Series. Who could have imagined it?

Under The Radar!

Our good-time guy hangs out by the fireplace at the North Jetty Fish Camp.

The North Jetty Fish Camp began life as a Tampa streetcar and has been a hotspot in the south Casey Key community since 1946. Coffee and breakfast at 5 a.m. for some, drinks and live music in the evening for others. It’s a bait shop, a place to fish and a community. One regular has brought turkey soup to share on the first cold day for more than 30 years. There’s even a little library. You’ll find a welcoming fire in the fireplace on cold days, and every morning, the American flag is raised, then lowered, carefully folded and stored at night. Photo and text by Bill Speer

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