It’s Rick Baker‘s 61st birthday today. This begs the question: What do you get the former mayor who has everything?
How about a debate then?
The Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church tonight is hosting the first debate in the mayoral race. Both Baker and incumbent Rick Kriseman are set to participate.
I guess that’s a gift for Baker: a one-on-one debate versus Kriseman without the distraction of the can’t-win candidates — Ernisa Bardwell, Anthony Cates, Paul Congemi, Momma Tee Lassiter, and Jesse Nevel — participating.
Unless I missed an event, this is the first time we’ve seen Baker vs. Kriseman, mano a mano? If so, this is an event years in the making. All of the frustration Baker has had with Kriseman could come boil over tonight.
Baker didn’t start off not liking Kriseman. Nor did he always think Kriseman was an ineffective mayor. Baker sort of grew into those positions. Some of it may have had to do with how frustrated Baker was with Bill Foster during his four years in office, so by the time Kriseman got into office — and started paying a chief of staff and raising the rainbow flag above City Hall — Baker had had enough.
“Why aren’t they building more parks?” Baker probably asked several dozen times during the last four years.
What to look for in tonight’s forum? Well, since it’s being hosted by a predominantly black church, the questions will likely focus on the progress — or lack thereof — in Midtown. Baker can talk about the capital improvements Midtown saw during his tenure, while Kriseman will counter that he has invested in “people” rather than buildings.
“When Rick Baker was our mayor, we got a library, post office — businesses moved in,” 12-year Midtown resident Douglas Walton told Creative Loafing in May. “He really supported the economic development for Midtown and the south side of St. Pete. Lives changed for the better.”
Issues of crime and resident relations with the police are almost always discussed at candidate forums held in Midtown. Most everyone acknowledges that crime is a big problem in that part of town, but telling that to the people at a political forum is preaching to the choir; they’re not the ones dealing drugs or shooting their neighbors.
Kriseman will talk about how his hiring of Chief Anthony Holloway has led to improved relationships with St. Pete’s black community — and he’s probably right there. But he’ll also talk about the plans to spend $86 million on a new police headquarters. Many on the Southside question the wisdom of spending so much on a building for a department they really don’t like when they can’t keep a grocery store open in the community.
The plight of the grocery store in Tangerine Plaza will probably be discussed a lot at tonight’s forum. A Walmart Neighborhood Market moved into the former Sweetbay box after that grocer shuttered all of its stores in Florida. It closed last year, creating a “food desert” for many residents.
As important as what is said at tonight’s forum, it’s what’s unsaid that’s also worth following.
For one, you won’t hear the same level of concern with the sewer politics you may hear at a forum in Old Southeast or Snell Isle. The issue will come up, just because it’s been in the news so much, but environmental issues tend to rank lower in importance with black voters than they do with white voters.
You also won’t hear from Momma Tee, the buffoonish, homophobic “community activist” running for mayor, but not allowed to participate tonight. Will she cause a disturbance, as she is capable of doing? Will she stack the audience with some of her supporters? Don’t put it past her. Also, Jesse Nevel, the white dude backed by the decidedly pro-black Uhuru organization, should have some friends in this audience. Maybe the Uhurus will cause a ruckus because their candidate is not on the stage?
The size and disposition of the audience are actually some of the key things to watch tonight, just because it may give an unofficial indication of Baker and Kriseman’s support in the black community. Will Goliath Davis and Deveron Gibbons be able to stack the room with Baker supporters? Or will the black Democrats lined up behind Kriseman dominate the scene?
Of course, during a one-on-one debate, the number one thing to watch is the back-and-forth between these two very different candidates. We can only hope they are asked tough questions. Because how a candidate gets out of a corner they’ve painted themselves into is what makes a political debate worth watching.