Forget about the call to execute former St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer. That was the old Omali Yeshitela. The new Yeshitela, the one who finished fifth in a 2001 mayoral primary field of nine, yearns only to beat Fischer's successor at the polls next time. When Rick Baker defeated Kathleen Ford in the March 27 runoff, Yeshitela said: "Baker won the election, and everybody lost." Yeshitela was earlier trounced despite, his critics say, the fiery 59-year-old black revolutionary transforming himself into a softer-toned multiculturalist to attract white liberal votes. But he insists that was no pose. To underscore the point, the founder of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement has emerged from his electoral defeat at the helm of a new social-justice group called Citizens United for Shared Prosperity, or CUSP.
Penny Hess, who chairs CUSP's political action committee, said Yeshitela campaign volunteers like her formed it. They hope to grow a broad coalition to challenge the entrenched businessmen who dominate St. Petersburg politics and put Baker in City Hall. "CUSP is made up of a real, true picture of St. Petersburg," Hess told a May 22 town meeting sponsored by the group. "We are Africans. We are whites. We are schoolteachers, parents, clergy. We are gays and lesbians. We are environmentalists and animal rights people. We have come together to say we all can win if we support and come together as CUSP." Hess, an author and Yeshitela adviser, was one of two white women to join Yeshitela and two other black activists of long standing, the NAACP's Perkins T. Shelton and labor leader Fred Winters, on the speaker's podium in a downtown auditorium at the St. Petersburg Times.
After Hess, child-birthing aide Anne Hirsch, Shelton and Winters spoke, it was Yeshitela's turn.
The Uhuru leader immediately sought to reinforce the diversity-loving image of his failed election campaign. "I was struck by some of the presenters because it reminded me so much of my own history — that gets distorted," said the relaxed-looking Yeshitela. "I've met folks who say: "Since your campaign, you seem to have changed a lot. You're interested in things about all the people.' But that's my history."
The Uhurus have stuck up for homosexual rights for decades, according to Yeshitela. "We organized the first demonstration against Anita Bryant," he said. "The Orange Juice Woman? That was organized by the Uhuru Movement in this city."
Yeshitela threw in a little humor before his standard denunciations of racism and police brutality. He recalled his management of an unsuccessful Winters run for City Council years ago. "I lost a city election for him because I put in his platform a demand for freedom for gays," said Yeshitela. "Remember that, Fred? "How could I forget?' Right?"
The racially mixed audience of 100 or so chuckled with Yeshitela.
The town meeting portion of the program was a time for audience members to vent about mistreatment of public housing tenants and African-American schoolchildren as well as to appeal for economic development in poor neighborhoods and more respect for bicyclists by motorists and police.
The front page of the inaugural CUSP newsletter is noteworthy for the group's opposition to underground storage of treated wastewater in Florida. Baker's pal, Gov. Jeb Bush, favors the untested proposal while the environmentalists being courted by Yeshitela beat it back for this year in the Legislature.
Yeshitela's speech touched other political bases on the way home.
"We have a mayor who is opposed to a living wage, who is opposed to gay rights, who is willing to sell the land under hospital, which is the only guarantee that everybody is going to be able to have health care," Yeshitela declared. "Somebody wants to pretend that this guy represents us. I'm saying we can organize and change all that."
Yeshitela concluded with his vision of a local rainbow coalition under whose banner he might one day be honored to run for public office. "The people who live in this city need to re-establish their capacity to determine what this city is going to look like. The Chamber of Commerce shouldn't make that determination. The St. Petersburg Times shouldn't make that determination. Nor should anybody of a special interest, separate from the interests of the masses of people," he said. "And we mean all the people."
Contact Staff Writer Francis X. Gilpin at 813-248-8888, ext. 130, or [email protected].