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Baker easily elected St. Petersburg mayor

In a race that focused on leadership skills, Rick Baker defeats council member Kathleen Ford.

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Rick Baker, who wrote a recent book on the history of the city, will shape St. Petersburg's future as mayor.

Baker, a 44-year-old lawyer with close ties to Gov. Jeb Bush, easily defeated City Council member Kathleen Ford on Tuesday in a mayoral race that set records for fundraising and turned more on personality than policy.

St. Petersburg voters also elected five City Council members and decided the fate of 10 city charter amendments on a gorgeous spring day when turnout was relatively light.

Just more than 49,000 of the city's more than 144,000 registered voters, or about 34 percent, turned out for Tuesday's general election.

Baker will succeed Mayor David Fischer, whose 10 years in office have been highlighted by the long-awaited arrival of major league baseball in St. Petersburg, a reawakening of the downtown and a citywide beautification effort. But the Fischer era also was scarred by two racial disturbances in 1996.

Fischer's tenure straddled the city's switch from the city manager form of government to one led by a strong mayor. His low-key personality helped ease that transformation even as he was criticized in some circles for failing to be aggressive enough.

Baker was widely viewed as Fischer's logical successor as the St. Petersburg mayor's office gradually evolves into a stronger political force.

The soft-spoken former head of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce was a Fischer campaign adviser. On the campaign trail, Baker also sketched a broad but measured view of the mayor's role in areas ranging from education to regional transportation issues.

While Baker embodied the St. Petersburg establishment, Ford played the role of the maverick.

During her four years on the City Council, Ford earned a reputation as a stickler for details who was often outspoken and abrasive. The 43-year-old lawyer was a frequent critic of the Fischer administration and of police Chief Goliath Davis III, the city's first black police chief.

With few burning policy issues in St. Petersburg, the mayoral election turned largely on questions of temperament and leadership skills. Ford sought to soften her image in the campaign's final days, while Baker stepped up his criticism of her personality in mailings and on television.

Baker, a local leader of campaigns for Jeb Bush and George W. Bush, also brought the Florida governor to St. Petersburg for a fundraiser in the non-partisan race. He raised a record $225,000, nearly three times as much campaign money as Ford raised.

In the City Council races, two candidates won the right to serve out the remaining two years left on the terms of two council members who had resigned.

Richard D. Kriseman, a 38-year-old personal injury lawyer, easily defeated challenger Dennis Homol Sr. to hold onto the District 1 seat that represents St. Petersburg's northwest neighborhoods. Kriseman was appointed to the seat in December to replace Robert Kersteen, who resigned and ran unsuccessfully for the state House.

In the race for the District 5 seat that represents the southern tip of St. Petersburg, James Bennett, the 48-year-old owner of a landscaping service, soundly defeated former Assistant City Attorney Robert Eschenfelder. Bennett will fill the seat held by Larry Williams, who resigned to run for mayor and lost in the primary.

Three council candidates won full four-year terms.

In the race for the District 2 seat that represents the northern part of the city, retired home builder John Bryan, 50, defeated Craig Patrick.

In the race for the District 4 seat that represents parts of downtown and neighborhoods just to the north, Virginia Littrell narrowly defeated Chris Eaton. Littrell, 50, is executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network.

In the race for the District 6 seat that includes inner city neighborhoods just south of Central Avenue, insurance agent Ernest Williams, 53, easily defeated Dwight "Chimurenga" Waller.

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