As coy as he has been with the local media and as busy as he is promoting the Rowdies referendum, Rick Baker is almost certain to run for St. Petersburg mayor this year.
Last week, Baker was in Tallahassee for a series of not-exactly-clandestine meetings with top Republican donors like Brian Ballard and Nick Iarossi.
Baker’s biggest cheerleader in the capital, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, set up the meetings.
Baker does not particularly enjoy fundraising; At least not as much as his fellow St. Petersburg office-bearer, Charlie Crist. It’s not that he can’t or won’t make the ask, it’s just that he believes — rightly so — that he probably has better things with his time.
So, for Baker to shake his tin can in Tallahassee, it’s the surest sign yet that he plans on challenging incumbent Rick Kriseman.
Despite all the hullabaloo over the city’s sewage system crisis, as well as a lack of genuine, visible progress on big-ticket items like a new St. Petersburg Pier or a new home for the Tampa Bay Rays, Kriseman is popular with city voters.
Were anyone other than Baker to challenge Kriseman — from popular Republicans like Brandes to City Council veterans like Amy Foster or Darden Rice — the mayor would dispatch them easily.
But, head-to-head, Baker trumps Kriseman.
In other words, Kriseman is a popular mayor; Baker just happens to be a more popular former mayor.
Three times out of five, Baker beats Kriseman. Which means it’s not a lock that Baker will beat Kriseman in November. In fact, one can make a pretty compelling case for how Baker might lose to Kriseman.
Here are 10 reasons why Baker might not want to run against Kriseman.
St. Pete is an increasingly progressive city, substantially more so than when Baker was re-elected in 2005. St. Pete’s gay community is more visible and more influential than 12 years ago. And if there’s one cohort Baker is cross-wired with, it’s Team Pride. While in office, he refused to sign a proclamation celebrating Florida’s biggest Gay Pride festival — a symbolic non-gesture that many of the city’s LGBT leaders and residents have not forgotten. These folks may already be against Baker’s Republican politics, just as they were against Bill Foster‘s. But Baker’s candidacy may galvanize the gay community in a way no other candidate would.
— Demographics — Part 2
When Baker won re-election in 2005, he won every single precinct in the city. That means precincts where blacks are in the majority — no easy feat for a Republican running against an opponent who would become chair of the Pinellas Democratic Party. Black voters also functioned as the deciding vote bloc for Baker in 2001 and for Foster in 2009 (both men defeated Kathleen Ford). Baker prides himself on his relationship with the black community. Remember, this is the policy wonk who won national acclaim for his vision of a “seamless city.” But will the black vote, in this era of Donald Trump, embrace Baker over a Democratic elected official who will likely be endorsed by most major African-American leaders? Even with Goliath Davis and Deveron Gibbons as his chief surrogates, it’s difficult to envision Baker winning the black vote at the same clip he did in his first two elections.
— Lessons from Jeb
In the parlance of Game of Thrones, Baker is a loyal bannerman to House Jeb. So many Republican pols admire Baker, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine him having to look up to anyone. But Jeb Bush is one of those people. Had Bush won his bid for The White House, it’s very likely Baker would be Secretary of Something right now. Obviously, that was not the case and in Jeb’s humiliating defeat — “Please clap” — there’s a cautionary tale for Baker. Bush was out of office for so long, and the political environment had shifted so much, that he was caught flat-footed by the new rules of engagement. What will Baker do when an anonymous negative website about him inevitably pops up? What will Baker’s strategy for Facebook and Twitter be? Will he be caught on video saying something honest, but politically damaging? How will he interact with the Tom Rasks and David McKalips of the mayoral campaign? There are so many possible landmines out there for anyone running for office that it can be a challenge for even a savvy operator like Baker. He can ask his friend Jeb about that.
— The Times will not be with him
Baker’s never been the Tampa Bay Times’ favorite local Republican (that would be Jack Latvala), but rarely has he been in its crosshairs. The local newspaper probably doesn’t have the desire or the horses to make Baker one of its “projects,” but it’s not going to be on his side — as it was in his races against Ford and Ed Helm — either. At the end of the day, the newspaper really likes Kriseman, even if it’s aware of his shortcomings. But his politics matches its and Baker’s apparently do not, so expect the editorial page (sans Baker ally Joni James) to weigh in again and again about how Baker had his time, and the city needs to move forward with Kriseman and blah, blah, blah. Also, the Tampa Bay Times may want to make up for this.
— The Bill Edwards conundrum
One day, residents of St. Petersburg may look at a statute of Bill Edwards that memorialized his many, many contributions to the prosperity of the city. Or maybe not. It very much depends on the outcome of an ongoing federal lawsuit lodged by two whistle-blowers accused Edwards of looting millions from his defunct mortgage company. According to Charlie Frago of the Tampa Bay Times, Baker was uncertain about Edwards’ situation, especially as it relates to the Edwards-Baker effort to attract a Major League Soccer team to the city. Questions about Edwards’ future and Baker’s work for The Edwards Group could be an issue on the campaign trail. Remember, Kriseman made Foster’s remote connections to Edwards an issue during the 2013 race.
— Rick being Rick
As smart and successful as Baker has been throughout his career, now and then he makes a decision that even his most ardent defenders (like me) can’t explain. After all, Baker did endorse Herman Cain for President in 2011. Kriseman is already making hay about Baker’s politics.
— Baker is not running against a tomato can.
Not hardly — Some might say Baker has been very lucky with who he’s had to run against in his previous campaigns. Ford, well, is Kathleen Ford, the ultimate femme fatale candidate who, despite her tenacity, was never going to win over a majority of supporters. Helm, well, is Ed Helm, who, despite his sheer intelligence, could not get out of his own way for long enough to build a winning coalition. While Ford, Helm, and Kriseman are all Democrats, Kriseman is nothing like Ford or Helm. He’s already proven he can build a winning coalition of city progressives, minorities, residents from the west part of the city, young voters, and the upscale urban liberals of northeast St. Pete. He has a loyal veteran campaign team and a base of donors and supporters already hard at work. Kriseman’s camp is not taking the prospect of a Baker challenge lightly; that’s why it has been raising money hand-over-fist in what is expected to be St. Pete’s most expensive campaign ever.
— Duh! Kriseman is the incumbent
Even Captain Obvious recognizes there are many advantages to being the incumbent in a local race. For example, Kriseman recently won the endorsement of the police union, an organization which went with Foster in 2009. Why? Because Kriseman is committed to building a new headquarters for the St. Pete Police Department. Will rank-and-file cops turn out for Kriseman? That remains to be seen, but advantages like this are the kind of default support an incumbent receives. He gets to be on the city’s TV channel, shows up at ribbon-cuttings, be in the newspaper and on TV any day he wants. Kriseman will be careful about doing so, but all the city’s resources are at his disposal.
— Kriseman knows how to throw a punch. Does Baker know what it’s like to be hit?
To quote Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Kriseman knows how to throw a punch; his campaign will not hesitate to use any and all lines of attacks against Baker. In the end, Kriseman’s campaign and its allies will throw the kitchen sink at Baker, who, while no stranger from the spotlight, hasn’t had a negative mailer written about him in 12 years. He hasn’t been the star of a grainy, black-and-white television attack ad. He hasn’t had his name dragged through the mud just for the sake of doing that. How will he react? How will Baker counterpunch? The answer to these questions may be the most fascinating thing to watch during the campaign.
— Does Baker really want to be Mayor again?
I think if Rick Baker had his druthers, he’d strap on his guitar and tour the state talking about his soon-to-be-released book and how there is a third way for polarized state politics. He’d speak of a “seamless state” and how Republicans can be both tough on crime and strong on the environment. Or be president of an expansion Major League Soccer team. But I’m not 100 percent sure he wants to be Mayor of St. Petersburg for the next eight years — who would run against him in 2021? Sure, Dick Greco had a successful second act as Tampa’s mayor, but by the end of his career, Greco was sadly out of touch with the community he loved so much and once loved him.
Nothing in politics would cause Baker more heartache than for him to lose the respect of his neighbors and fellow residents.