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Mayor's role now Baker's to define

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- It seems only natural that Rick Baker will be the city's next mayor.

Baker is the logical successor to Mayor David Fischer. He was a key adviser on all three Fischer campaigns. He won by a surprising margin, relying heavily on the same coalition of downtown leaders and black voters who kept Fischer in office for 10 years.

In a city where times are good and abrupt change is always viewed with skepticism, Baker promised measured, steady progress while Kathleen Ford was determined to make a splash.

St. Petersburg will take a gradual tide over a tidal wave every time.

In politics, Fischer beat back three straight challengers who tapped into the vocal minority of voters who are rarely satisfied with the business establishment, the Police Department or City Hall.

It took years to get a baseball team. Overambitious development projects pursued by city government, from Pier Park in the early '80s to Bay Plaza in the early '90s, never got off the ground. But downtown gradually came back with new shops, condominiums and BayWalk.

Now Baker can be expected to gradually increase the visibility and influence of the mayor's office.

Fischer's tenure straddled the city's switch from the city manager form of government to one led by a strong mayor. While his low-key personality helped ease the transition, he also was criticized for failing to be aggressive.

Baker has hinted that he will stretch the job and use the mayor's bully pulpit in areas ranging from education to regional transportation. He won't be Chicago's Daley or New York's Giuliani or even Tampa's Greco, which is just fine with St. Petersburg voters.

Yet Baker has a remarkable opportunity to set the agenda.

He won a solid 57 percent of the vote. And without Ford's pointed questions and sharper words on the City Council, the new mayor will be working with a council that should be less confrontational and more willing to follow.

"There's definitely something of a power vacuum," said Ray Arsenault, a city historian and University of South Florida professor. "You would think this place would be absolutely ripe for a larger-than-life mayor. Rick Baker is tall and large, but he has generally been fairly low-key."

Lou Brown, chairman of the Coalition of African-American Leadership, also predicted any differences between Fischer and Baker would be measured. "I know he had worked closely with the mayor," Brown said, "and I don't see his vision being any different."

In a non-partisan race, Baker called in Gov. Jeb Bush to help raise money and sold his Republican ties in a last-minute mailing to Republican voters. Yet the Republican who embodies the downtown establishment won solid backing from black Democrats.

In black neighborhoods, Baker's ties to the Republican governor who replaced affirmative action turned out to be less important than his support for the black police chief, Goliath Davis III.

There will be challenges for Baker.

He will have to reach out to voters who disapproved of the political partisanship. His willingness to manage Davis and the Police Department will be scrutinized since the chief had a Baker sign in his yard and top officers volunteered for his campaign.

And Baker's political skills will have to get better as he transforms from a grass-roots campaign worker into a politician in his own right.

Ford actually ran the better campaign since last month's primary, when she squeezed into the general election with Baker by finishing just 220 votes ahead of the third-place finisher.

She smiled more and frowned less. She was poised during debates and came across well on television. She softened her approach even as she refused to back down from criticism of the Police Department or of Baker.

Addressing complaints about her temperament, Ford distributed a flier contrasting her "tough" and "soft" sides.

"I'm so proud of the campaign we ran," Ford said Tuesday night.

She should be. She didn't win, but she had Baker's supporters running scared.

Baker proved to be more adept at raising money in the past month than in driving home his message. He began the campaign by repeating four key issues over and over: stronger neighborhoods, better schools, safer streets and more economic opportunities.

But in a monthlong sprint to the general election, the strategy did not work as well as it does in yearlong campaigns. Baker was short on specifics. His answers were less direct than Ford's at forums, and he looked uncomfortable on television.

By the end, Baker turned nearly every question into one about Ford's temperament. In the last-minute mailing to Republicans, Baker turned a non-partisan race into a partisan one and called Ford every name he could, from "divisive" to "rabble-rouser."

In what could come back to haunt Baker, the mailout characterized Ford's support from the National Organization for Women as a negative.

"She started to hug our issues," Baker consultant Adam Goodman said of the decision to focus on Ford's personality. "We wanted to make sure people understood this was not a small step between Candidate A and Candidate B."

They understood it just fine.

- Staff writers Adam C. Smith and Bryan Gilmer contributed to this report.

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