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Rick Baker emphasizes education issues during fundraiser in south St Pete

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Upon taking the stage Tuesday night, Rick Baker made a promise to the hundreds of supporters in attendance at the Morean Arts Center for Clay.

Baker vowed he wouldn’t speak as long as he did on the steps of City Hall two weeks earlier when he officially announced a bid for Mayor of St. Petersburg.

He kept to that promise, clocking in with an address that lasted a little more than 22 minutes. While some of it was a rehash of the themes that he talked about on May 9, Baker said he wouldn’t spend any time in getting into it with his main rival, incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman.

That promise he did not keep.

Referring to how St. Petersburg became the state’s first “Green City” back on his watch in December of 2006, Baker said “It’s hard to maintain that green cities status when you dump 200 million gallons of sewage in the Bay,” referring to the sewage spills that occurred on Kriseman’s watch the past two summers and his reaction to them, eliciting a huge mocking cheer from the crowd.

“If you hear anybody talking about the environment, I want you to remind them that it’s hard to stay a green city when you do that. We’re going to fix that problem,” Baker declared. “I promise you, we will fix that!” before being drowned out by more cheers.

There was a spirit of bonhomie at the event, and why not? Buoyed by a recent St. Pete Polls survey that has him up by double-digits over Kriseman, Baker said at the onset of his speech that he wanted to talk about the future of St. Petersburg, though he spent a considerable amount of time recounting the past, when he served as mayor from the spring of 2001 until January of 2010.

Baker spoke about how people laughed at him when he declared in 2001 that he wanted to make St. Petersburg the best city in America, but “nobody questions” that claim now, at least not in St. Pete.

“We’re arrogant about it now. We really do believe that, but it’s not assured that it’s always going to be that,” Baker said, saying that the plan is the same for any city in America — public safety, good schools, economic development, strong neighborhoods and being fiscally responsible.

Regarding public safety, Baker said that going after drugs in the community is the “number one thing that you should do,” and decried the removal of the street crimes unit from the St. Petersburg Police Dept.

He boasted about streamlining government, referring to the fact that almost 300 positions in city government were eliminated during his tenure (some of that had to do with the loss of revenue to the city following the recession). He vowed to bring back one specific position, however, a deputy mayor for neighborhoods.

Baker also talked about how involved he was in education in St. Petersburg when he was elected, even though he was told that at the time that wasn’t part of the mayor’s portfolio.  He said that it was and it is, because a lack of good schools will prevent people moving into neighborhoods and businesses from entering the community.

He then went over the panoply of programs that he implemented to improve the schools when he was in office, including a mentorship program created in 2001 where the city partnered the city with local schools to recruit and train volunteers from the city, businesses and the community.

“We need to work in partnership with the school board,” he said. “It is not acceptable for our schools to be where they are.”

Although he didn’t name names, the after effects of the Tampa Bay Times series on “Failure Factories” regarding five Midtown schools continues to resonate as an issue, nearly two years after those stories were first published.

Cracia Richmond works as an assistant at Lakewood Elementary, one of the five South St. Pete schools cited in that piece. A Kriseman supporter in 2013, Richmond says she will vote for Baker this year.

“He’s been a great leader for us, and I feel that we need that back in our community,” she said Tuesday while awaiting Baker’s appearance.

“I’m not happy with a few things,” was her answer when asked why she’s not backing Kriseman this year. “I would say some of the things happening in the public schools. I work in the public school system, I assist in the classrooms, and I just feel that we need a lot of support.”

Kriseman says he’s done plenty of work on schools since becoming mayor.

Speaking to FloridaPolitics.com earlier this month, Kriseman referred to several programs: Take Stock in Children scholarships; a mentorship program with city workers; matching businesses with schools to provide resources for education and reading more opportunities for students; anti-bullying initiatives; service learning and mini-grants with the Pinellas Education Foundation; pairing college students with high school students for mentorship, and has in Leah McRae a dedicated schools liaison from City Hall to focus on the city’s resources on its schools.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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