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In Tampa, Rick Baker refuses to talk about partisanship in mayoral contest

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Before it’s all said and done, Rick Baker may open up about being a Republican.

But, at this stage of the campaign for St. Petersburg mayor, Baker continues to avoid partisan politics. 

The once (and possibly future) mayor is blasting incumbent Rick Kriseman for playing the partisanship card far too much during his tenure as mayor. He said he refuses to be drawn into the subject while appearing at Cafe Con Tampa Friday at the Oxford Exchange.

The first and last questions from members of the audience at the event were questions about partisanship by Democrats.

Samantha Pollara, a member of the Hillsborough Young Democrats, asked Baker that since he doesn’t believe partisanship should play a part in what is officially a non-partisan race, would he pledge not to campaign for any Republicans if elected?

“That is another attempt to bring partisanship into this race,” Baker said, adding that he supported both Democratic and Republican candidates during his time as mayor, and would do so again.

“I believe that the poisonous partisanship that we have in Washington has led to a dysfunction that is making people doubt where we’re going, right?” he continued. “I will not get sucked into partisan discussions in this race, and I will continue to oppose people that try to do that, including massive television ads that are being bought against me by a political party, which is just so contrary to our charter.”

The ad that Baker reference is one that is cpaid for by the Florida Democratic Party and attempts to link Baker to Republicans like Donald Trump, Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin.

Because it’s titled “FDP takes aim at Rick Baker,” featuring all the Republicans in the ad as baseball players, former U.S. Rep. David Jolly considers it an allusion to Louisiana Republican Representative Steve Scalise, who was the subject of an assassination attempt during a congressional baseball practice.

Jolly labeled the ad “abhorrent” in a tweet on Thursday night.

Baker told Friday: “It’s part of the poisonous partisan politics represented by that has no place in the mayor’s race.”

The last question during the Q&A came from Democratic political consultant Gregory Wilson, who asked Baker if he had any suggestions about how to bridge the political divide.

Again, Baker wasn’t biting.

He then asked Wilson if they had both worked on David Fischer‘s mayoral campaign in the 90s, which Wilson said was true. Baker replied that Fischer was a Democrat and that he had run his campaign. He then followed up with an anecdote he delivered on the day he officially announced his campaign back in May: that the then-St. Petersburg Times had done a story about all of his staffers political affiliations shortly after taking office in 2001, and discovered he actually appointed more Democrats than Republicans to his political team.

“I just don’t care,” he replied, inferring that political affiliations don’t mean much to him while running a city government. “That has not been the case the past four years,” he said, taking a shot at Kriseman. “I acknowledge that. But that’s the way I would govern.”

The issue arose on the same morning that the Tampa Bay Times came out with an angry editorial denouncing Kriseman for talking about a Baker/Trump alliance “because he can’t defend his record.” The newspaper assailed Kriseman for talking about crime and Baker’s GOP roots, because “the top issue in this election remains Kriseman’s mishandling of the sewage crisis.”

Perhaps so, but Baker never mentioned sewage during his lengthy, 26-minute opening remarks at Cafe Con Tampa. Instead, he delivered a familiar (though not to the majority of Tampa residents) stump speech about his drive to make St. Petersburg the best city in America during his first two terms.

He talked extensively about being a “new urbanist,” believing in building dog parks, skateparks and playgrounds to improve the quality of life for everyday citizens in the ‘burg, before getting deep into the weeds about his programs to address complaints about fixing sidewalks and potholes.

An argument could be effectively made that Cafe Con Tampa’s Del Acosta should have cut off Baker earlier to allow for more questions from the audience. In all, Baker spoke for 26 minutes, while taking questions for only 21 minutes (by contrast, Acosta attempted to cut off speaker Peter Schorsch after about 10 minutes of remarks last week but backed off when members of the audience said he should be given more time to speak. Acosta did not act with alacrity at all with Baker).

Baker also gave his standard response when asked about how important it was business wise to be known as being LGBTQ friendly, saying that he worked with people of all orientations during his nine-year run as mayor, and would continue to do so.

Regarding the Cross-Bay Ferry, a public-private pilot project that took place last winter and spring between Tampa and St. Petersburg, Baker was noncommittal about its future. He said he took it with his wife to Tampa and enjoyed himself, but knocked it as requiring a “huge subsidy from the taxpayer to do that.” The local governments of Hillsborough, Pinellas, St. Petersburg and Tampa all contributed $350,000 to kick-start the effort, and did receive some return on that, but not enough make them whole.

Baker told one of the men behind the project, Ed Turanchik, that he’d need to review the project before he’d sign off on advocating that Hillsborough County spend more than $20 million on a plan that would have a ferry go from South Hillsborough County to MacDill Air Force Base, and potentially to St. Pete after that.

Regarding light rail, Baker said it “could be a solution between Tampa and St. Petersburg,” but said he’d want to know a lot more information before advocating for any specific plan.

Baker also recounted an anecdote initially introduced during his opening campaign speech that soon became a talking point for his critics. It was about a speech he gave at the Museum of Fine Arts where he declared that St. Petersburg was the cultural center of Florida.

“Which was my approach sometimes, you lie until it becomes true.”

He then continued before noticing the looks he was receiving from some members of the audience and checked himself.

“And by the way, I’ve said this before, and now other people say ‘See, he says he lies all the time.’ It was a joke,” he said to laughter. “So if anybody from the other campaign — it was a joke.”

Joke noted.

The mayoral primary takes place August 29. If neither candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, it will continue on into November.

Jesse Nevel, Anthony Cates, Paul Congemi and Theresa Lassiter are also on the ballot.


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 [email protected]

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