Gentrification in the South side of St. Petersburg has been a major campaign issue this summer, and Rick Kriseman‘s decision to select the owner of the Pipo’s chain of Cuban restaurants to operate out of the historic Manhattan Casino has been seized upon by the Rick Baker campaign over the last week leading up to Tuesday’s primary election.
“I think Rick Kriseman is completely out of touch with the African-American community,” Baker said Tuesday when asked if he agreed with a similar statement made on Saturday by former St. Petersburg assistant police chief Cedric Gordon, a strong supporter of his bid to return back to City Hall.
Referring to the historic significance of the Deuces, Baker said he couldn’t fathom why the Kriseman administration has made a deal for a BMW motorcycle dealership at the history Sno-Peaks site, and now with the Calaloo group featuring former NFL wide receiver Vincent Jackson at the Manhattan Casino site.
“Now, I love Cuban restaurants, but it really does not belong on 22nd Street on the Deuces,” Baker said dismissively.
Both candidates have a number of black leaders backing their respective candidacies, while the latest St. Pete Polls shows that the black vote is roughly split evenly between the two Ricks.
Baker and his family met up with reporters shortly after 9:30 a.m. on Election Day at the American Baptist Church of the Beatitudes on 8th Street North, where they were poised to cast their votes in what has become the most expensive mayoral campaign in St. Petersburg history.
As of last Friday, Baker had raised more than $446,000 directly into his campaign, and $597,500 into Seamless Florida, his political committee.
Kriseman had raised more than $439,000 directly into his campaign, and $324,450 into Sunrise PAC, his political committee.
Since leaving office after serving two terms in office in early 2010, Baker went into the private sector, first working for USF and then in December 2012 joining the Edwards Group, led by businessman Bill Edwards.
Baker has said that, if elected, he will step down from the Edwards Group, but he will not recuse himself of any dealings with the Group regarding various city issues. Edwards owns the Sundial St. Pete downtown shopping plaza; the Tampa Bay Rowdies, which play at Al Lang Stadium; and has an agreement to operate the city-owned Mahaffey Theater.
City Councilman Karl Nurse says that Baker has been “tone deaf” in not acknowledging the perceived conflict of interest, and said last week he would ask for the Florida Commission on Ethics to weigh in on the issue.
“This is a purely, partisan attack by Karl Nurse, he does it all the time,” Baker responded Tuesday, adding that he has made it crystal clear that he will quit the Edwards Group if he returns to City Hall, but he will not “abandon the city.”
“I’m going to make sure that I’m representing the city in every dealing as mayor of the city. I’ve always done it,” Baker said. “Nobody’s ever questioned that I was 100 percent fighting for the city of St. Pete, and I will continue to do that.”
Baker told reporters that he never could have imagined after handing control over the city to Bill Foster in January 2010, he would be back running for his old gig some seven years later. But he said that that his concerns about the city under Kriseman’s leadership compelled him to run.
“We’re going backwards,” Baker said, a line that Kriseman and his supporters say is exactly what will happen if Baker is elected. “I want to focus on the basics of running a city. I’m not going to get into national politics, Rick likes to get involved with national politics. I’m going to get involved with St. Pete and make sure we move our city forward.”
The polls close at 7 p.m. Tuesday.