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Candidates trade barbs at first forums since primary

Rick Baker and Kathleen Ford had similar responses to some questions. But they also criticized each other.

By LEONORA LAPETER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- In their first meeting since the Feb. 27 primary election, mayoral candidates Kathleen Ford and Rick Baker struck a confrontational tone and wasted no time indicating they will fight to win the mayor's office.

Ford, a City Council member for four years, touted her government experience and Baker's lack of it.

She said during one of two forums Thursday night that she is committed to neighborhoods and that Baker isn't. She said she would bring everyone in St. Petersburg to the table but Baker would carry on four more years of the "good ol' boy network."

"I don't want some milquetoast millionaire mayor," Ford said during her closing remarks to about 75 people at the St. Petersburg Women's Club on Snell Isle, at a forum moderated by the League of Women Voters. "I'm tired of that."

Ford also referred to Baker's record-breaking campaign contributions -- $127,201 as of the final week of February.

"I haven't been there with my hands out to special interest groups for special favors," Ford said. "This is a huge organization and not something you should step into for on-the-job training."

But Baker didn't take it all lying down.

He said that City Council experience is not as important as style and demeanor. How you carry yourself. Whether you criticize others. Whether you humiliate city employees in front of the public.

"My leadership style is collaborative," Baker told 100 people at the other forum, held in the St. Petersburg Times auditorium and sponsored by the African-American Voters Research and Education Committee. "I look for strengths. I would never bring someone before the City Council and humiliate them."

Baker was referring to Ford's criticism of city employees in public.

Ford and Baker didn't spend the entire night attacking one another.

Appearing first at the Times auditorium, they handled questions on issues such as affirmative action, support for small businesses, economic development and the tenure of police chief Goliath Davis.

In some cases, the candidates' responses were similar. Both said they support affirmative action. Both said they wanted to see the city make it easier for residents and businesses to redevelop or restore buildings.

But they also showed some differences.

On a question about whether she would keep police Chief Goliath Davis throughout her term, Ford would not commit and said she would evaluate all department heads.

Baker, on the other hand, said he likely would keep Davis through his term as mayor.

"Based on the professionalism he's given the city, I do support him and there's a high likelihood I'd continue to support him through my term," Baker said.

Ford said she doesn't support school vouchers. Baker said he supports the existing school voucher program but would not expand it.

Ford said she would agree to legal language that would prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. Baker said he wouldn't agree to such language.

The issue of party politics came up at the second forum, at the St. Petersburg Women's Club. Someone asked the candidates to comment on the intrusion of party politics in the non-partisan race.

The question was directed at Baker, who expressed surprise, saying it was Ford who met last week with Democrats.

Baker said the question must refer to the fundraiser held for him and attended by Gov. Jeb Bush. He said he's proud of that support.

Ford said she felt "sabotaged" by the way her meeting with the Democratic Party was portrayed in a Times story.

She said she was simply meeting with interested citizens as she would with anyone, and she wasn't courting the support of the Democratic Party.

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