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Uneasy questions make short honeymoon

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2001


Rick Baker said he was honorable.

People took him at his word.

He said he was straightforward.

People took him at his word.

Because they did, last month they elected him mayor of St. Petersburg.

What are we to make of Baker now that we know that the man in charge of St. Petersburg's government comes from a family with members who had such contempt for the federal government that they cheated it?

What are we to think of Baker for leaving out this part of his story -- that the new mayor suffers from severe memory lapses?

His father and two of his brothers defrauded the public.

They were caught using scrap metal to make parts for military aircraft. His brothers laundered money to hide illegal profits. Their company was even once caught polluting by state environmental authorities.

Yes, it happened a decade ago.

And no, it does not appear that Baker, then in his early 30s and a lawyer for the St. Petersburg firm of Fisher & Sauls, had anything to do with the scam. He was never charged with a crime.

But we still needed to know.

This is another example of the issue that drives Americans crazy about politicians. We want to gauge the character of the candidates who put themselves forward. We're not always sure exactly what we want to know about a candidate's life and character, but we do prefer to know before the election, not after.

Baker is not responsible for his father's or his brothers' conduct. But in his life, the federal prosecution of three family members must have had the force of a hurricane.

Perhaps this made him vow to be the most upright of the upright. Or perhaps it taught him other lessons, not so positive.

We also needed to know whether Baker is one of those strange but not so rare individuals who go through life convinced they can engineer reality.

Such men only end up deluding themselves.

St. Petersburg is not a very big place. His secret was never going to stay secret.

Surely, in his private moments, Rick Baker knew this.

Surely, he knew that even the newspaper that so wholeheartedly endorsed him would eventually connect the Aerodyne scam to his family and go back and re-examine the old court files, now kept in a Georgia warehouse.

Baker all but said Tuesday he kept his family's secret because he wanted to protect his father and brothers. They had rebuilt their lives, he said. He was proud of them.

He certainly can't be blamed for loving them -- any more than the rest of us can be blamed for wondering whether his motives weren't mixed. Protecting his family meant protecting himself from those nasty-edged questions that his opponent, Kathleen Ford, is famous for. What fun Ford would have had every time she dropped the name Aerodyne. What fun she might have had on election day.

Baker won by nearly 6,500 votes. This disclosure may not have changed that healthy edge.

But I doubt it.

This story is, oddly, about space -- the space Rick Baker maintained between himself and his family, when they defrauded Uncle Sam. Over the next days and weeks, reporters will be knocking themselves out to fill in the space, to answer the questions that are rising now as steadily as bread in a warm room.

Maybe the answers to those questions will be comforting.

But I doubt that too, at least in this regard: By staying silent about his family's past, Baker has damaged the confidence that people just weeks ago put in him.

How does he fix that? Can he?

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