Near the end of Rick Baker‘s 36-minute speech announcing a re-election challenge to Mayor Rick Kriseman, the former two-term mayor invoked his mantra of St. Petersburg being a “seamless city” — and that includes the LGBT community.
“A lot has been said about me and the LGBT community by my opponent and by others,” he said on the steps of City Hall last week, without acknowledging why that was an issue when he was mayor and continues now as a candidate. “I want you to know that I believe that the LGBT community is a vital and important part of our community. I believe that when we work together, we have to work together with everyone.”
During Baker’s first go-round as mayor, from 2001-2010, he showed little interest in reaching out to that community.
As St. Petersburg’s annual Gay Pride parade grew to become one of the biggest celebrations of its kind in the entire Southeast, Baker assiduously eschewed attending the event. Nor did he ever hang the Pride flag over City Hall, a gesture Kriseman undertook during his first year in office.
“Personally, I don’t support the general agenda of the Pride event,” Baker told the then-St. Petersburg Times back in 2005. “And there are mixed feelings in the community. I’ve gotten petitions signed by hundreds of people who oppose the festival.”
One day after formally declaring his candidacy, a group of about two dozen activists gathered on those same City Hall front steps to denounce Baker’s historical relationship with the LGBT community.
The event was organized by Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee Susan McGrath, a major backer of Kriseman.
“St. Petersburg is not the same city it was 15 years ago, and we don’t need to look any further than the people who’ve been elected to office,” McGrath says, referring to the fact that there are currently three members of the LGBT community that sit on the eight-member City Council.
McGrath acknowledges that while the total population of the LGBT community in the city is “finite,” a much bigger part of the electorate are the citizens that identify as wanting to live in a fair and welcoming city.
“So, if you’re a candidate for office, and you don’t want people to recognize your record on that,” McGrath muses, “I can run a campaign that might be over in August or November. I’m going to try to sweep some things under the carpet so that I don’t lose any more votes than I have to.”
Over the past two years, St. Petersburg’s reputation as an inclusive city for the LGBT community solidified with a top ranking from the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index. The score judged municipalities in five categories: nondiscrimination laws, employment policies, city services, law enforcement and municipal leadership.
Organizers of St. Pete Pride say that since the event expanded to three full days, the economic impact has grown from $10-million to over $20-million.
While appreciating the reference to the LGBT community in his speech, some people in St. Petersburg remain skeptical if Baker has evolved on the issue of gay rights, or if it’s more of an election year conversion.
“Is this just for his political gain now that he knows that the LGBT community is a very vital and important part of our community, or is he genuine?” asks Equality Florida member Todd Richardson. He said that in his conversations with people in the LGBT community in the immediate aftermath of his campaign speech, he’s heard some people want to give Baker the benefit of the doubt on his evolution on gay rights and have the opportunity to sit down with him, but others remain dubious when he’s never been willing to do so in the past.
“I go by what someone’s done in the history of representing a city,” adds Ed Lally, a Democratic Party activist. “And he has a giant ‘F’ on his report card for any advancement of LGBT equality.”
Lally says he doesn’t have to question what’s in Kriseman’s heart when it comes to supporting diversity.
Others in the LGBT community aren’t as judgmental.
Jim Jackson is a Democratic Party activist running in the City Council District 6 race this year who stood behind McGrath at Wednesday’s news conference criticizing Baker.
“I was surprised and really encouraged that he would include that (reference to the LGBT community) in the last part of his speech,” Jackson said. “I very carefully listened to that, and after he was done, I went up and thanked him for being inclusionary in that part of his speech.”
“I will tell you that has never been a single time in all of the years that I have known Rick Baker, when my gender, my sexual orientation or any other personal status was at all significant in the way that he interacted with me, either on a professional or personal level,” says Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan, who moved up the ranks in the SPPD during Baker’s two terms as mayor.
“He was always my boss first, but he was also a mentor and a friend. But in every circumstance, he was fair and accepting of who I was. It was simply a non-issue.”
The two bonded, in part, over the fact that they are both parents of adopted children, Bevan says. Baker was one of the first people to contact her after Bevan announced she would be leaving the St. Petersburg Police Department to take the top job in Bradenton.
Chris Eaton, a local business official and former Democratic candidate for City Council and state representative, says the LGBT community vote is not a monolithic one.
“Not all LGBT members go to Pride and march, and not everybody wants to get married,” says Eaton. “Some people are concerned about the arts, and some people are worried about wastewater. Some people are concerned about straight talking honesty coming out of City Hall. And some people are concerned about their tax dollars that might not be fiscally responsible,” he said, reeling off a list of criticisms of Kriseman.
City Council Chair Darden Rice says she hopes that Baker understands that “the ball is in his court” to demonstrate a deeper understanding of why diversity is important.
“He has to go beyond equivocations, go beyond half-hearted statements, and really demonstrate that he understands and cares why this issue is important, and perhaps even acknowledge why some people in the community aren’t quite trusting him on this issue just yet,” Rice says.
“I like Rick Baker. I think he’s a good person,” adds Annie Hiotis, chief operating officer of the Tampa law firm of Carlton Fields. “I think he did some good things when he way mayor, but he certainly didn’t put diversity in the forefront at all, and when you’re the CEO of an institution, you’ve got to make that a priority for a city to reach its full potential.”
One potential opportunity for Baker to demonstrate his bona fides on the issue is to show up at the Pride Parade next month. Another, suggests Lally, is for the former mayor to sit down with Nadine Smith, the head of Equality Florida. “I think that would be a big signal to the LGBT community,” he says.
St. Petersburg-based political strategist Barry Edwards says Baker’s inclusion of LGBT rights in his speech “shows his sensitivity to the issue in the Saint Petersburg of today.”
“However at the end of the day the race for mayor will be decided upon by whom voters feel is a more competent steward of moving St. Petersburg forward,” he says.
Early polling in the Kriseman-Baker race suggests that it will be a close election.
In a city that went for Hillary Clinton last fall with nearly 60 percent of the vote, the demographics favor Kriseman.
In his campaign speech, Baker dismissed partisanship, saying, “that’s all they’ve got,” while betting that deep-seated relations with the electorate and dissatisfaction with the current administration will transcend party affiliation in what is officially considered a nonpartisan race.