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    New St. Petersburg mayor finds support after report on family

    Some are bothered that news about Rick Baker's relatives was slow to emerge. Other say let him be mayor.

    By LEONORA LaPETER and BRYAN GILMER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2001


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Other public officials and even opponents Rick Baker defeated in the St. Petersburg mayor's race expressed empathy and support for him Wednesday after learning of a dark chapter in his family history.

    "My thing is that you really cannot control what happens to your family," said City Council member Earnest Williams. "That shouldn't have an impact on his ability to perform as mayor of the city. If he had some involvement, that would be a different issue."

    Baker called City Council members Tuesday to tell them that his father and brothers had been prosecuted in a defense contracting fraud scandal 10 years ago after learning that the family connection would be documented in a newspaper story.

    Baker said Tuesday he was never contacted by investigators because he had no involvement with the things for which his brothers and father were prosecuted. He said he did not mention it during the campaign because he thought it was irrelevant and he did not want to cause his family more pain.

    Speaking briefly with a reporter Wednesday, Baker said that others had expressed similar support for him, and he said in hindsight that he supposed he should have disclosed the family connection during the campaign.

    "My first impression is I feel terrible for Rick," newly elected council member John Bryan said of the news, which came to light after an e-mail was sent to the St. Petersburg Times and others the night before the general election. "It doesn't change the way I look at him at all. It had to come out some time, but at least now it's behind him."

    Not everyone believes the issue is closed. One defeated mayoral opponent, Karl Nurse, said he wishes he'd done a better background check of his opponent because knowledge of Baker's family history may have made a difference in the election.

    "I guess the real question is how much legal work did he do for this crooked company and what was his connection," said Nurse, who lost in the nine-way primary Feb. 27. "You know, I guess everybody has relatives that they're embarrassed by, but they don't usually have that many. It's kind of amazing."

    Former mayoral candidate Omali Yeshitela said it doesn't bother him that Baker's family members have a criminal past.

    He's more concerned with what he views as Baker's lack of sensitivity toward the African-American community when he featured Republican Gov. Jeb Bush at a fundraiser.

    "I think it was conveniently discovered rather late," Yeshitela said of Baker's family history.

    "But to me the greater questions were about his relationship to a Republican apparatus that many people in this community felt was responsible for disenfranchising the African-American community."

    Kathleen Ford, Baker's opponent in the general election, did not returned calls seeking comment. Former mayoral candidate Larry Williams, who also lost in the primary, said the revelations about Baker's family are irrelevant and Baker should simply be allowed to govern.

    "These are things that happen in families," Williams said. "In his case, I don't think it affects his ability to do what he needs to do as far as what he was elected for. Let's get out of the way and let him do it. Let him be mayor."

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