Incumbent Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker took shots at each other during the first mayoral debate Tuesday, June 27
BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker faced off—and often traded barbs—in a debate held Tuesday night at the Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. Kriseman and Baker are two of seven candidates running for the office.
In his opening comments, it was clear that the incumbent Kriseman, now wrapping up his first term, was looking ahead and pointed out that this campaign is about the future, and whether we want to go forward or backward.
Baker, running for a third term said his objective back in 2001 as mayor was to create a “seamless city.” Not every neighborhood is going to be the same, he said, but certain things should be common to every neighborhood, such as grocery stores and banks.
Once moderator Tammie Fields opened up questions from the floor, Alphonso Gwyn asked Kriseman what his plans are to combat crime—specifically drugs and prostitution—and the feeling that some communities do not get the same police attention as downtown.
Kriseman said he is “incredibly proud” of the city’s Police Chief Anthony Holloway, whom Kriseman himself handpicked. He noted programs that have been introduced since Holloway took office such as Park, Walk and Talk, where officers talk to residents one on one.
“It’s all about reestablishing that relationship with the community,” Kriseman said, adding that as a result, more crime tips are coming into the police from the community.
He said that crime is down in the city overall, and violent crimes are down 26 percent. Even one crime is too many, he conceded, but when you don’t have the relationship between the community and the police department, he said what you get is far worse. He pointed out that in 2005 alone the city had over 30 murders.
Gwyn said he felt the mayor did not answer his questions, and Baker felt the same way. Pouncing on the question, Baker said that the city established the “street crimes” unit when he was mayor, and its purpose was to target those selling drugs and also prostitution. He said that Kriseman has since eliminated this unit and “merged/eliminated” the auto theft unit and an auto theft “epidemic” followed.
“I will put both of those units back in place,” he said.
With Baker as mayor, buildings were put up along the 22nd Street South corridor, but he laments now the fact that Sylvia’s and other places of business have closed or moved out due to “inattention.”
Kriseman said that if people don’t have the resources or are not making the money to be able to spend at Sylvia’s, Sweetbay or Walmart, those businesses are not going to survive on 22nd Street.
“We’ve been focused not just on buildings but on creating the jobs,” he stated. “And so what we want for Sylvia’s is something that’s sustainable, that recognizes the history of that building, recognizes the history of the Manhattan Casino, but isn’t there for a year or two years or three years, but that 10 years from now it’s still open and its popular and people still have the resources to spend there. Building a house of cards doesn’t do us any good that collapses.”
Baker said the buildings that went up during his administration are important, and he wants to continue to bring that to Midtown, notably a grocery store again.
Audience member Theresa Jones wanted to know how Baker has changed since 2007 when the slashing of homeless people’s tents happened on his watch.
“It was a mistake,” said Baker. “It shouldn’t have been done because it put us in a bad light, and it made us feel like we’re attacking the homeless,” he said, noting that what came out of the incident was the creation of Pinellas Hope, “where tonight 400 people will be sleeping, not on the street, but getting transition care, being connected to their families, getting social services, that is social justice.”
Kriseman said Baker blamed an employee for the tents slashing debacle and Baker said Kriseman dumped 200 million gallons of sewage into the bay and “blamed everybody on the planet that he can possibly blame.”
The two traded jabs so much that audience member Ashley Green asked both Ricks to be respectful to one another.
“This is the pettiest back and forth snipes than I’ve ever witnessed,” she said.
Ten-year-old Shanyjah Williams asked Kriseman what his plans are to get the teachers to care more about schools on the south side of town.
Kriseman maintained that changing the environment in the classroom is important in improving education, he said, noting that’s a reason he’s introduced the service-learning program, where college students act as tutors and mentors to high school students.
Baker said he had his own programs in the schools, such as a school-pairing program that involved tutoring and even financial help to students. The reality is, he said, that the students that are going to schools in south St. Pete are going to school with a different set of resources than students in other parts of the community. The school board should be put on notice, Baker said, as that is something that has to change.
“These schools have to have the same resources,” he said.
Baker said Kriseman is attempting to make it a partisan race because “he doesn’t have a lot to show for what he’s done the last three and a half years.” By making this a Democrats versus Republicans race, Baker explained, Kriseman aims to divide everyone.”
Kriseman said he doesn’t try to hide the fact that he is a Democrat and that his party affiliation reflects his values.
“My party believes in Obamacare…”My party believes that felons’ rights should be restored and that kids should be given a second chance.”
In regards to millions being spent on the Pier, Kriseman explained that through multiple community forums, the people of St. Pete made it clear that they still want a pier. Though Baker agrees that the city should have a pier, he pointed out that Kriseman had said it would be built by 2015. He also noted that the pier design that the people voted for—designed by three local architects—is not the one they’re going to get.
In his closing statement, Baker underscored his desire to improve schools and make the community safer. Kriseman reiterated that this election is about the future of the city and the direction we want to go.
In a straw poll conducted, Baker received and 114 votes and Kriseman received 48. Primary Election is held Tuesday, Aug. 29.