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Some black leaders say Rick Baker's close association with Jeb Bush could damage his image. Baker says a strong bond could help the city.
By BRYAN GILMER
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 21, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- Like a card player throwing down a hundred-dollar bill to begin a kitchen table poker game, Rick Baker will start his campaign to become St. Petersburg's mayor by holding a fundraiser featuring Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
For a suggested campaign donation of $200 per person, Baker's supporters can enjoy a soda with the governor, the brother of the next president of the United States. They can hear Bush speak, and Baker will lay out his campaign platform.
"On Jan. 12, we are going to get cranked up," said Baker, a lawyer and former Chamber of Commerce chairman. "We're really going to lay out where we're going."
The event will likely direct thousands of dollars into Baker's campaign treasury, but Baker's move is high stakes in another way, too.
Though the event is co-chaired by Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris, other African-Americans said Baker's close association with Bush could damage Baker's image in their community.
"It's going to be the kiss of death as far as the black community is concerned," said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church, who plans to discuss the matter with Baker during a private meeting today. "I don't think the One Florida plan was popular with African-Americans and minorities. Jeb Bush campaigned on a more moderate viewpoint."
Bush heavily courted black voters in St. Petersburg while running for office in 1998. Baker served as co-chairman of Bush's local campaign then. After Bush was elected, he replaced most affirmative action set-asides with his One Florida plan, which some African-Americans saw as a betrayal.
Baker also co-chaired the local campaign for George W. Bush this year. State Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, said featuring Jeb Bush at a fundraiser so soon after his brother narrowly won the presidency seems like a poor move.
"First of all, Rick Baker has made great strides in attempting to understand the various issues African-Americans face in the city of St. Petersburg. I laud him for that," Peterman said. "But you've got to say to yourself in a city like St. Petersburg, where quite a few, if not all, African-Americans voted for Gore, that you would want to be a little more sensitive."
Baker has worked hard to reach out to black voters. He espouses economic development in the city's poorest neighborhoods as one of his three primary issues. But he was also chairman of the Chamber of Commerce while the group's executive director fought against a city grant for the St. Petersburg Area Black Chamber of Commerce. Baker said he wanted to see the membership of the larger chamber become more diverse, rather than see the creation of a new chamber of commerce.
"Some will criticize me for being friends with the Republican Jeb Bush," Baker said. "Some will criticize me for supporting or being friends with Democrats (Mayor) Dave Fischer or (County Commissioner) Calvin Harris. It doesn't mean you believe in identically the same things. But it would be good (for the mayor of St. Petersburg) to have a good, strong relationship with the governor of the state. It will help advance the city."
Harris, the first black Pinellas County commissioner, could not be reached for an interview Wednesday.
Baker will not discuss how much his campaign plans to raise Jan. 12 or how much he will spend overall in the campaign. University of South Florida political science professor Darryl Paulson estimates that the winning candidate will need $75,000 to $150,000.
"When you're going for a $100,000-per-year job, you can afford to spend a little more to get it," Paulson said.
Campaign spending has increased since the mayor became St. Petersburg's full-time chief executive through a 1993 referendum.
With the job description uncertain during the 1993 election, Fischer raised more than $66,000, including $3,000 of his own money, to defeat Ernest "Curt" Curtsinger, who raised more than $68,000, including $10,000 of his own money.
In 1997, Fischer spent over 50 percent more on his campaign: some $101,000, including $20,000 of his own money. The defeated Bill Klein raised about $81,540, including $21,000 of his own.
But those are still nickel-and-dime stakes compared to the war chest of more than $500,000 that Tampa Mayor Dick Greco raised to beat Jan Platt in 1996. Greco was unopposed for re-election last year.
Lawyer dipping toe into St. Petersburg mayoral campaign (November 4, 2000)