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First place is where Baker's work begins

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2001


Rick Baker can't play it safe.

After downplaying expectations, the St. Petersburg lawyer finished first in last week's mayoral primary. He is a solid favorite to defeat City Council member Kathleen Ford in the March 27 general election and succeed incumbent David Fischer.

But Baker should remember he won just 25 percent of the vote in a field of nine candidates. Three out of four voters supported someone else, and more voters who skipped the primary will turn out next month.

Despite his credentials as former chairman of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and his other volunteer work, Baker is hardly a household name. This is his first run for elected office, and his opponent is far better known.

Here are six ways Baker could ensure he will win:

Draw contrasts with Ford.

Baker speaks carefully and avoids direct criticism of his opponents. But when the attacks come, he cannot be reluctant to defend himself and point out Ford's history of divisive comments.

He also should remind voters that while he has a history of bringing together business officials and volunteers for charities, she has rarely been able to forge any consensus on the City Council.

Court black voters.

Two black mayoral candidates, Omali Yeshitela and Maria Scruggs-Weston, captured the top two spots in some of the predominantly black precincts last week. But Baker often finished with more than 10 percent of the vote in those areas and always did better than Ford.

Fischer won the last two general elections with overwhelming support from black voters, and some of those voters remember that Baker was a key Fischer ally. But others also associate Baker with Gov. Jeb Bush, the Republican who replaced affirmative action in state contracting and university admissions. Among black voters statewide, Bush's job approval rating is just 8 percent.

Baker has three weeks to reassure black voters that his ties to the governor would not affect how he would treat predominantly black neighborhoods as mayor.

Appear as Fischer's natural successor.

Fischer has been St. Petersburg's only strong mayor since the voters approved the switch from a city manager form of government eight years ago. His low-key approach and emphasis on neighborhoods provided a smooth transition.

Now, Baker's challenge is to embrace the best of Fischer while turning up the volume. There is a sense that St. Petersburg is ready for a stronger, more vocal mayor who is more visible and more outgoing.

Baker was the only candidate during the primary campaign to regularly credit Fischer by name for his work with neighborhoods, and he would not directly criticize the incumbent. But he has to be more direct now about how he would take the mayor's office to a new level.

Offer a broader view of the job.

Baker already has sketched out some innovative ideas, but they have gone unnoticed outside the candidate forums. He says the mayor should speak out about education and defend St. Petersburg's interests as the county moves from court-ordered busing for desegregation to a controlled choice plan.

He also wants to work more with neighboring city officials and legislators on regional transportation problems -- even if the roads aren't within the city limits.

As the campaign progresses, Baker should put more emphasis on his plans for turning the job into something larger than it has been.

Focus on western neighborhoods.

Former city Planning Commission Chairman Karl Nurse had hoped to make the general election by running second to Ford in the Tyrone area, where many voters tend to feel disconnected from City Hall and downtown.

Instead, Baker ran second in many of those precincts, and Nurse finished fourth citywide. Baker's campaign devoted considerable resources to those western neighborhoods, and he has spoken to many of the neighborhood associations.

If Baker continues to run close to Ford in this area, he can't lose.

Loosen up.

At campaign forums, Baker often appeared to be the stiffest candidate. He regularly wore a coat and tie while others dressed less formally. He was not as quick as some others with the spontaneous line that brought a chuckle from the crowd.

Baker should let voters see more of himself, including his love of city history. A self-deprecating quip now and then wouldn't hurt, either.

Recent coverage

Ford's ingredients for success in uphill mayoral race (March 6, 2001)

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