Former Mayor Rick Baker announced his candidacy for mayor on Tuesday.
BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – A familiar name will be on the ballot as former Mayor Rick Baker formally announced his intention of running for mayor once again, this time against incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Standing on the steps of City Hall Tuesday morning, Baker made an impassioned speech that lasted more than 30 minutes.
The 60-year-old Baker, who held the mayor’s office from 2001 to 2010, was surrounded by his family and supporters, among them City Council member Jim Kennedy, who told the crowd, “He is a candidate who knows how to work with city council as a team for the best interest of the city.”
Also on hand was State Representative Wengay Newton who called Baker “the only man that was able to make significant changes in the area where I grew up.”
The former mayor has not been entirely absent from public life as he has recently been part of the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ campaign for a referendum that would allow the soccer team to upgrade Al Lang Stadium.
Baker extolled the accomplishments of his past administrations, including the building of new recreation centers, libraries and pointed out that he worked with the neighborhoods to improve St. Pete.
He also underscored his support for schools while mayor, by supporting principals and teachers with housing loans, raising money for scholarships or even getting corporate partners for every school.
“When I ran for office the first time, people said, ‘Schools aren’t a part of a mayor’s job,’” he said. “Well, we made it part of the mayor’s job…”
His administration worked closely with the police department to make St. Pete a safer city, Baker said, noting that this included creating a street crimes unit that “substantially” increased the number of drug arrests. Violent crime and murder rates had gone down by the time he left office.
“Public safety’s the number one job of the city,” he said, “I get that. And we worked at it, including working with our fire department, including working with homeland security.”
He pointed out the re-energizing of downtown with the arrival of such companies as Duke Energy, a new learning center in the form of a St. Pete College campus and the overall revitalization of the arts and cultural scene.
“Early on in my years, I declared St. Petersburg to be the cultural center of Florida. And that’s something I like to do—I lie until it becomes true!” he quipped.
A thriving arts scene is not only important for a better quality of life but for economic development, he said, and called it “one of the top generators and engines of our economy.”
Mentioning the work that has been accomplished in Midtown—including bringing in a grocery store, a bank, a clinic and a SPC campus—Baker made a point of saying, “By the way, no one had to escort me through Midtown,” to some murmurs of approval from the crowd. “The folks that went with me when I went to Midtown were my wife and my children when we went into Midtown, into the neighborhoods and to the events that they had in that part of the community because we cared, because we understood, because we had a heart for it.”
Baker even praised former Mayor Bill Foster—who succeeded him—and city officials for working together in succeeding in making St. Pete a better city and “weathering the storm” of the recession with “prudent leadership.”
“That all changed three and a half years ago,” he said. “We now have leadership that is insulated.”
Baker stressed that unlike Kriseman, he acted as his own spokesman, his own community emissary “to deal with the issues of the community and listen to the people,” and his own chief of staff.
“You know, we have a chief of staff now that I think a lot of people wonder who’s running the city sometimes,” he said.
He reiterated that the Kriseman administration is insulated and one that is “seeking to divide us.” Predicting the Kriseman administration will reduce this election to mere partisan politics, Baker forewarned that we’d hear “a lot about Republicans and Democrats” in the coming months “because that’s the only thing they have. They have no record they can run on. They have no successes.”
Returning to the accomplishments of Midtown, where Baker said his administration “did so much,” he said that Kriseman actually did keep that campaign promise of his to not put up any buildings in that neighborhood.
“He said, ‘You know, I don’t believe in building buildings like Mayor Baker, I believe in helping people!’” Baker said.
“Well, I guess someone never really explained to him how when you build a clinic, people get helped inside that clinic…And when you build a college campus, people get [an] education so they can get jobs…And when you build a Job Corps site, people get training…When you build a grocery store, then it helps eliminate a food desert.”
Baker said it was Kriseman’s administration that “ignored” the grocery store. He said the stupidest thing he’s ever heard came from a letter written by the deputy mayor that said Midtown couldn’t support a grocery story.
“The people in Midtown deserve a grocery store just like they deserve any kind of services you and I have in our neighborhoods and they deserve to be a seamless part of the city too.”
Mocking Kriseman’s promises to deliver a new pier to St. Pete by 2015, Baker asked the crowd rhetorically: “Anybody been out there lately? Two years later, we have a hole in the water.”
Baker said that the mayor ignored the votes of the public for a local architect’s design and chose another design over it—one that furthermore couldn’t be done for the budget that had been set.
In 2001 when he took office, the city was under a DEP order to fix its sewer system, Baker explained. During the following nine years, the city spent $160 million on water and sewer capital improvements.
At the end of that period, in 2010, Baker said the city was off the DEP consent order and was named the best-maintained big city sewer system in the state.
“So what do we do? Well, we have a plan to improve one of our plants to be able to take sewage from our downtown plant and transfer all the sewage. But the mayor decides, ‘Well, I’m not going to wait for this other plant to be ready for anything, I’m going to close it down anyway!’”
After closing the plant, Baker said 50 million gallons of sewage was dumped into the bay. The city had gone more than 15 years without a major spill up until that point.
Such dumping “kills the health” of the bay, he said, and impacts the city’s economy because people start to wonder about the city’s reputation. In turn, he asserted, it affects our quality of life.
Former City Council member Leslie Curran, who had endorsed Kriseman on his path to becoming mayor, now supports Baker as she believes Kriseman has fallen short of his promises.
“Rick [Kriseman] ran on a platform of leadership,” she said, “and I have seen none of that. What I’m here for today is to endorse proven leadership.”
Baker confided that he had “no intention” of coming back as mayor again, but he loves the city and said that he “just can’t stand it anymore. I just can’t stand by and watch.”
“The race is on,” Baker said, challenging Kriseman to debate him.