As star football players at Jones High School, Nap Ford and Edward "Zip" Clark battled opponents side-by-side on the defensive line. And after Clark's death in 1991, Ford stood with Clark's wife, Mercerdese, as she took charge of Orlando's ill-fated campaign to "revitalize Parramore " the blighted African-American neighborhood a short stroll, but a world away, from festive Church Street Station and the rest of the city's thriving downtown.
Yet, as Ford prepares to release the lock he has held for nearly 18 years on his District 5 City Council seat, he has sidestepped Clark to join the political team of Daisy Lynum, a school-district social worker and former municipal planning board member who is one of three opponents facing Clark in the March 10 election that will choose Ford's successor.
Ford's written endorsement, featured prominently on Lynum's literature, fails to explain why he opposes Clark, with whom he grew up. And Ford abruptly hung up the phone after declining to answer questions about either the candidates or the issues in the district he has represented since it was created to help give black residents a council presence. Insiders see two motives for Ford's strategy: Either it's a payback to Lynum for not running against him in 1994, or he's embittered by the politics underlying the city-backed Parramore Heritage Renovation Foundation, which Clark served as president of the board.
The race also has attracted Charlie Jean Salter, a retired professor who has run three times previously for the seat -- in 1994, losing by just 15 votes in a run-off -- and Lawanna Gelzer, a day-care center owner and volunteer cheerleading coach at the Callahan Neighborhood Center. (Gelzer has hired the same political consultant who helped engineer a win by Frank Peterman, a mid-30s African-American elected to the St. Petersburg City Council.)
Yet in terms of money and name recognition, the front-runner is Clark, whose toughest obstacle to overcome may well be the failure of efforts she directed to rejuvenate the district's downtown core.
Lynum and Salter say Clark hoarded control of the Parramore project, which resulted in a narrow vision that flopped. "She should have shared that leadership. Nobody knows everything," says Lynum, a former friend of Clark's who now describes her sorority sister as "mean as a snake" in the aftermath of negative campaigning. And in response to questions about her relative lack of civic experience, Gelzer counters, "Where's the benefit? Why do we have the Parramore Heritage District in this condition after the millions of dollars that went into it?"
In her defense, Clark points to weak volunteer support and board members who worked poorly with staff hired to enact plans that would have put Parramore back on track. Sounding a lot like Ford, Clark suggests that patience is needed: "It's a slow process. It didn't happen overnight."
While business is slow, Clark herself seems to have benefited. The storefront in which she runs a dress shop is located in the city-financed parking garage and retail strip just west of I-4 that was to be the anchor of Parramore's resurgence. Designed as an extension of Church Street developments, the structure instead symbolizes the city's continuing inability to connect this neighborhood with the prosperity transforming downtown east of the interstate. Few locals or visitors venture beneath the landscaped I-4 overpass -- unless they're headed for the police station adjoining the development. Up the street from Clark's shop, practically every storefront is empty, signs in windows warning of imminent demolition and vandalized windows demonstrating the street's uncertain future.
One of the storefronts still in use is Clark's campaign headquarters, leased to her for $10 by Carolina-Florida Properties, the speculative land development company that has bought about 60 properties in the area, while keeping the public -- and city officials -- in the dark about its plans. And Carolina-Florida president Al French was among the first contributors to Clark's campaign, which had raised $13,523 as of Dec. 31.
Others who supported Clark in the early going include the company owned by Mayor Glenda Hood's husband, which donated a $150 party tent. On the city's behalf, Clark headed up the efforts that led to the 1994 creation of the Parramore Heritage Renovation Foundation, a nonprofit corporation established to obtain and administer grants, and the Parramore Heritage Resource Center, a social agency which administers programs aimed at revitalizing the community. Yet four years later, although more than $700,000 has been spent on staff, youth programs, fund-raisers and a home-loan program, little tangible progress has been made. The city now has stopped funding the center. And in January, Hood trotted out a new five-year plan, even as Carolina-Florida continued to acquire tracts and demolish buildings in a way that may yet frustrate the city's long-term goals for development.
Other Clark backers include some of the city's best-known movers and shakers, who rarely set foot in District 5 other than for a business deal. "Fund-raising is a hard thing to do in this neighborhood," says Clark. "My people are not people who reach out and give a lot."
Clark's opponents insist her network shows a disinterest in the district's real needs, and that she has had her chance. But Clark pledges to devote her energies to further promote renewal efforts, emphasizing public-private partnerships more likely to result in long-term solutions. And she says she will fight to convince city officials and developers to include Parramore in downtown redevelopment plans. "There's too much emphasis only on the west side of I-4," she says.
The real question is: Can anyone truly succeed in leading a resurgence in Parramore and the rest of District 5, which routinely posts Orlando's highest ratings in terms of unemployment, poverty and lack of home ownership? "The poverty we're expressing in our community is one of the mind and material sources," Lynum says. "It's time we were set free."