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Trayvon Martin case a trial by fire for rookie Sanford mayor

For about a month, Mayor Jeff Triplett labored to keep a lid on an explosive situation in Sanford, Fla., after local police released George Zimmerman, who fatally shot teenager Trayvon Martin. The mayor emerged intact, but not unchanged.

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Triplett tells people he is doing everything he can to ensure a full review of the investigation. But do his words mean anything?

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The question loomed large on March 22, at an enormous rally for Trayvon in Fort Mellon Park – the first of many demonstrations during the week. The anger was fresh and palpable. Thousands had turned out as the sun was setting over the lakeside recreational grounds. As mayor, Triplett got up to speak, some in the crowd booed, but Congresswoman Brown jumped up and took the microphone. She spoke of his work to get the 911 tapes released. “He had decided to do the right thing," she said later. "To me, that was an important step.”

To others, it was an important misstep.

Linda Kuhn, the incumbent mayor whom Triplett had bested in 2010, blasted him in a letter to the local paper, The Sanford Herald. She wrote that good management shouldn’t be influenced by a “mob mentality.” And she questioned why the mayor was letting Sanford get dragged through the mud in the press.

“Not once has he defended this city and its 53,000 residents against the outrageous statements made by Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Ben Jealous et al regarding Sanford being a racist city,” she wrote.

About a year ago, after he defeated Ms. Kuhn, Triplett was focused only on promoting Sanford, which is 20 miles north of Orlando. Triplett told the Orlando Sentinel in March 2011 that his mission was to polish the city’s image as an unsafe, crime-ridden haven marred by corruption and controlled by what he vaguely called good’ol boys.There were not-so-old controversies whose shadows stretched into his tenure. The former police chief was pushed out after it emerged that a police lieutenant’s son had cold-cocked a homeless man in December 2010 but wasn’t arrested until late January.

The job of sewing back together Sanford’s torn image is now full-time. On a recent Friday, Triplett sat down for lunch at the Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe, a German-themed restaurant. It wasn’t even 1 p.m., and he had 17 messages on his voicemail. Every minute or so, his phone lit up like an alarm with a faulty snooze button. He couldn’t remember who last interviewed him. Someone from MSNBC, “Andrea what’s her name.”

Coming out onto the sidewalk, he was greeted warmly by a group of African-American women meeting for lunch. One was Ashton Gaines, who had attended the March 22 rally.

“It was good to see you last night,” Ms. Gaines said to him.

Triplett chatted for a few minutes before heading off to his next appointment. But Gaines had more to say about the people who'd booed him, how they didn’t know what they were talking about. Asked if his race made her distrust his motives, she rejected the idea.

“Jeff is the mayor of Sanford because he is a good guy, not because he is white or black.”

On the day the world learned that Zimmerman would be charged with second-degree murder, Triplett and city manager Norton Bonaparte held their own press conference outside of City Hall, where news media from all over the country waited. They appealed for calm, and, after taking questions, headed back inside to debrief and prepare for the next day.
A series of meetings with local pastors and community leaders is in the making, as Sanford preps for the task of “healing” relations between residents and the city. The case is in the hands of the court, but the job of reuniting Sanford is in the hands of city leaders.

Says Triplett, “We’re taking that big, deep breath and saying, okay, what does tomorrow hold for us?”

RECOMMENDED: How 5 young black men see the Trayvon Martin case 

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