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Tough job looks easy for Baker

From the beaches to the Pier, the mayor appears to be riding a gentle swell toward another term.

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published May 1, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - They don't hold mayoral elections in St. Petersburg; they hold ferocious, all-out wars.

Come election season they hurl personal insults. They pit stadium supporters against opponents, African-Americans against the Police Department, downtown boosters against outlying neighborhoods.

Which is what makes this news remarkable: A St. Petersburg mayor is poised to coast into another term.

"Given the history of politics in our city, it's amazing," City Council member Jay Lasita said of the ease with which it appears Rick Baker will win a second four-year term in November.

"There are people looking for someone to run, but I don't think anyone really serious and credible is going to take the risk," Lasita said. "A credible candidate could maybe get within 10 points on a very good day. Why would anybody want to risk their political future for that?"

Baker will formally kick off his re-election campaign May 16 with a fundraiser hosted by 150 supporters in the lobby of the city's downtown Bank of America tower. His campaign theme music might as well be Kum Ba Ya.

The stark us-and-them political map that has defined recent city elections - essentially western and northern neighborhood coalitions vs. downtown, African-American and affluent neighborhoods - by many accounts has disappeared.

Consider a couple of St. Petersburg voices:

"There's a recognition that this mayor has been more focused on the west side, where a lot of really positive changes have happened," said City Council member Rick Kriseman, whose west St. Petersburg district for years provided the mother lode of votes for challengers to mayoral incumbents.

West St. Petersburg voters, who long complained about being ignored by City Hall, these days are watching the area sprout dog and skateboard parks, a community center and the city's largest library.

Then there's Primus Killen, a 50-year resident of the Midtown area, where African-Americans effectively swung the last four mayoral races:

"Rick Baker has been great," the retired police officer said of Baker's efforts to revitalize Midtown. "Some of the things I see happening in Midtown, like the new post office, are things we've been needing for years. You hardly see rundown buildings anymore. Or when you do, you know they won't be here for long."

The political landscape can change any time in a city rocked by violent racial unrest, such as St. Petersburg has been in the last decade, and where complaints continue about law enforcement in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

There is at least as much ambivalence about Baker's performance as passionate support for the guy. People complain about excessive red tape in the permitting department, about Baker's cooking up secret deals. A leader of the Uhuru movement contends Baker's first term has been "a complete betrayal" of African-Americans who put him in office.

The deadline to qualify to challenge Baker is Aug. 2, enough time for a credible candidate to emerge.

That said, for the first time in more than two decades, there is no overriding issue dividing the city.

"In this business, there's got to be a persuasive reason to throw a guy out of office, and the impression is, things are going well," council member Jamie Bennett said. "What would your platform be?"

Baker's only prospective challenger so far is a laidoff electronics technician, James A. Huff III, who has never run for office. Huff declined to comment when asked why Baker should be replaced.

By many assessments, a strong candidate would have had to start laying the groundwork long before now to stand a chance against an incumbent who raised a record-shattering $225,000 for his first campaign.

Finding people who aspire to be St. Petersburg mayor is easy. Finding anyone who views Baker as beatable is anything but.

To which Baker responded: "You're going to make my fundraising awful hard."

* * *

All politics may be local, but a good chunk also is luck. Baker has had his share.

"In some respects he was in the ideal situation because many of the positive things that have come to fruition were plans that had already been under way," said Darryl Paulson, who teaches a class on St. Petersburg politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Downtown and neighborhood revitalization had begun before Baker took office, and redevelopment exploded during his first term. A new City Council offers little of the bickering and public criticism that Mayor David Fischer faced.

"I used to pick up the paper every morning to see what dumb thing the city did," said council member John Bryan, who calls Baker the best mayor of his lifetime and whose north St. Petersburg district has tended to vote heavily against incumbent mayors.

Baker has grappled with plenty of challenges, some of them big.

The 48-year-old corporate lawyer entered office facing major lawsuits over the stadium construction and the BayCare hospital alliance, which Baker quickly settled. Despite the development boom, most of his tenure has been marked by tough budget years. Baker cut some services but also the tax rate.

He won high marks a year ago for helping defuse tension when sporadic violence erupted during a protest march over the outcome of a lawsuit brought against the city that involved a police shooting in 1996. He has led several high-profile negotiations with the county - such as financing downtown St. Petersburg improvements - and consistently wound up on top.

"The bottom line is the mayor is running the city that for so long was run by remote control," said former Mayor Randy Wedding, a leader in the effort to unseat Mayor Fischer.

Once-common complaints about unaccountable bureaucrats running City Hall have mostly disappeared. People are more likely to complain about Baker not involving more people in his decisionmaking.

"I started out coming from the business world, where you come up with a plan and then you execute the plan. I've learned it doesn't work that way here," Baker acknowledged. "You really have to work on public buy-in of the plan."

It takes political skill for a Republican to lead a city where 48 percent of the city's 158,000 voters are Democrats and 31 percent are Republicans. Baker ran all of Fischer's tough mayoral campaigns and knows the city's politics better than just about anybody.

His instincts appear to have helped him weather some potentially volatile issues. Early in his tenure, he infuriated much of the city by firing his hand-picked police chief, Mack Vines, for making a remark that some viewed as innocuous and others saw as racist. Likewise, he wound up on the wrong side of public opinion in calling for Albert Whitted airport to be scaled down, but suffered no lasting wounds.

He has long been rumored to harbor ambitions to run for Congress, but Baker dismissed that. With two children in elementary school, he said he has no interest in spending much of his time in Washington and he prefers executive positions to legislative. Some Pinellas Republicans see him eventually running for attorney general or governor.

Baker, though, said he's focused on serving out a second term and is taking no chances that someone might get in his way.

"I've had a number of opportunities come my way to look at other things or do other things, but I really do think I have the best job in Florida right now," Baker said.

"I'm not going to wait till August to see whether I have a race. . . . I'm going to be prepared as if I'm going to have the same kind of race I had before."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or adam@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 30, 2005, 23:58:09]


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