Speaking in impassioned tones Tuesday, former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker is ready to tangle head on against incumbent Rick Kriseman.
“You’re going to hear a lot about Republicans and Democrats over the next few months,” Baker said as he formally announced his bid for mayor on the steps of St. Pete City Hall. “Because that’s that’s the only thing they have.”
Baker was referring to earlier statements from Kriseman’s campaign manager about Baker’s support for Republicans like Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Herman Cain in what has become a very Democratic city.
“They have no record that they can run on. They have no successes,” Baker added, before blasting Kriseman for failing to build a new Pier.
Surrounded by former mayors Bill Foster, David Fisher and Bob Ulrich, as well as former and current City Council members Wengay Newton, Leslie Curran, Bill Dudley and Jim Kennedy, Baker said that it was never his intention to run again for City Hall after two successful terms from 2001-2010.
But Baker heard too many critical things about the city he loves while on the campaign trail for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in recent months. That, he said, motivated him to get back into electoral politics.
Curran endorsed Kriseman for mayor in 2013, but since, she said she has become increasingly disappointed.
“Rick (Kriseman) ran on a platform of leadership, and I have seen none of that,” she said, endorsing Baker’s “proven leadership.”
The first part of Baker’s 36-minute speech was a nostalgia-filled recital of programs and initiatives accomplished during his two terms at the beginning of this century, parts of which he practiced talking about in recent months while campaigning for last week’s referendum expanding Al Lang Stadium for the Tampa Bay Rowdies. It was a part of his effort in working with Rowdies owner and St. Pete entrepreneur Bill Edwards.
About halfway through, however, he pivoted sharply into a detailed and brutal attack on the Kriseman administration.
He began by blasting Kriseman for hiring a chief of staff, a public information officer, and a neighborhood liaison; all those positions Baker said he didn’t need because he was in charge when running City Hall from 2001-2010.
“We have a chief of staff (Kevin King) now, that I think a lot of people wonder, who’s running the city now, right? Baker said. “A lot of people wonder that.”
“Did anybody wonder that when I was running the city?”
Baker accused Kriseman of dividing the city, and the results have been “disastrous,” specifically referring to how Midtown is doing these days. He brought up the recent departure of Wal-Mart there, leaving the area to become a food dessert.
“We worked so hard in Midtown,” he said. “We put so much effort into Midtown, and we did it because it was the right thing to do.”
While undoubtedly Team Kriseman will contest that, among those in attendance at the news conference was former Police Chief Goliath Davis, who endorsed Kriseman in 2013 but has also backed Baker in his earlier runs. He’s with Baker this time around.
“I’ve always been a Baker guy,” he said. On Kriseman, he simply said: “I’m not excited about what has occurred.”
One of Kriseman’s lowest moments as mayor occurred late last summer when heavy rains brought massive sewage dumps. Over 200 million gallons made way into local waterways.
Baker contested Kriseman’s charge that previous administrations ignored infrastructure issues in the city. At the time, he had spent $160 million on water and sewer capital improvements, he said, claiming the city was named the state’s best big city sewer system in 2010.
Sewage came back up when Baker stated that Kriseman would talk a lot about the past versus the future. “Backward is dumping 200 million gallons into the Bay,” he said.
Baker insisted he’s not been somnolent in the years since leaving City Hall, referring to his work with the Rowdies as well as helping the people in the Warehouse Arts District.
He also prominently discussed his involvement in local schools, criticizing Kriseman for not taking the same initiative.
As for problems depicted last year in South St. Pete schools dubbed “failure factories,” Baker didn’t blame the current mayor for that situation but wondered where his passion was in trying to ease the problems.
“Where is the involvement? Where’s the plan? Where is the all in response? I promise you, I will give a response. I will go into the schools and work with the school system, and work with the school board.”
At the end of his speech, Baker spoke to the LGBT community.
Over the years, the former mayor’s refusal to attend Pride events became an issue when he was in office. Baker knows, undoubtedly, it will be brought up again this year, with a City Council that includes three members of that community.
“I believe that the LGBT community, is a vital part of our community,” he said, noting that while in office, he had LGBT staffers at City Hall.
Before the speech, a crowd of a few dozen protesters held anti-Baker signs across the street from City Hall.
Pinellas County Democrat Bill Bucolo said he wasn’t there as a Kriseman supporter but as a Baker detractor.
“When he was mayor, we were known as being a very mean place. I think ‘mean’ is bad for business,” Bucolo said, specifically citing the incident where St. Pete Police officers ripped the tents of the homeless. “St. Pete’s not known for being a mean city anymore.”
(Rick Kriseman responds).