Ostensibly, the event was hosted by a group of retired and current African-American police officers, including former St. Petersburg Police Chief Goliath “Go” Davis, former assistant chief Cedric Gordon and retired Major Donnie Williams. Over 200 Baker supporters showed up for the festivities.
Baker, a Republican who served as mayor from 2001-2010, is challenging incumbent Rick Kriseman, a Democrat. It's a race that, as seems to increasingly be the norm these days, is a proxy partisan battle in what is supposed to be nonpartisan race.
That Baker held his first campaign event in predominantly African-American south St. Petersburg is no mystery.
The black vote is integral to becoming St. Petersburg's mayor. Baker's hoping to lock it down, and he's got some powerful allies in his effort to do so.
“We’re excited to have a prominent, proven leader,” Davis, a longtime Baker ally, told the crowd. “Rick has vision, is a consensus builder and is a compass for the people.”
Baker, who spoke for a few moments before "blessing" the food, emphasized his passion for the predominantly African-American Midtown area. Much like Kriseman did in Midtown's Bartlett Park the prior day, Baker said crime went down under his watch.
“When Rick Baker was our mayor, we got a library, post office – businesses moved in,” 12-year Midtown resident Douglas Walton said. “He really supported the economic development for Midtown and the south side of St. Pete. Lives changed for the better.”
Baker, who is president of the Edwards Group and is employed by Tampa Bay Rowdies owner/billionaire developer Bill Edwards, said the thing he missed the most about being mayor is “being out among the people and finding out what they really want.”
Baker acknowledges that St. Pete has changed drastically since his he last held public office — from the artist enclaves of the Warehouse Arts District to the high-rises going up downtown to St. Pete Pride, the LGBT festival that has become possibly the largest celebration of its kind in the Southeastern U.S. (which Baker never attended or supported when he was an elected official).
“The city has grown drastically,” Baker said. "It’s a much different city of people here today.”
Much of Baker's messaging thus far centers on the job he apparently thinks the incumbent is doing. He said he thinks the city under Kriseman spends too much money, and does so carelessly.
Baker told the crowd he has five key priorities: improving schools (which is actually under the purview of the Pinellas County School Board), further improving conditions in Midtown, public safety, working "with neighborhood leaders to improve communities and the city overall” and curbing "careless spending.”
Of course, his message was tailored to his audience — and it has to be.
Yes, the south side is a key region in the race, and although Baker was popular there for his efforts to lift the area up — "Midtown" was coined under his watch as a means of helping rebrand the area — it's been nearly eight years since he has been in office. The SweetBay grocery store he helped bring to the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and 22nd Ave. S. became a WalMart, and now the building is shuttered with few known prospects for a replacement. The Community Redevelopment Area that helps keep tax dollars invested in Midtown passed under Kriseman's watch, and the south side still has a long way to go before there is a "seamless" transition between it and every other part of town.
Plus, though the five-person race is nonpartisan, Kriseman's Democratic politics and his alliances with south St. Pete Democrats like County Commissioner Ken Welch and State Sen. Darryl Rouson may help tip the scales. And Baker will probably have to work to distance himself from the likes of Donald Trump and Rick Scott, who espouse policies that many believe are harmful to minorities and women (such as tougher punishments for nonviolent offenders, voter suppression, drug testing welfare recipients).
Not that Kriseman is, you know, livin' on Easy Street.
A bout of bad weather could mean the water department would have to dump sewage into the bay — a (likely) result of a combination of aging infrastructure and what might be a desperate need for a change in leadership at the water department. His critics, including and especially Baker and his supporters, will blame him for anything that happens.
Polls suggest Baker would at very least present a serious challenge for Kriseman (if not win by a couple of points). Kriseman has also faced criticism for taking action on the Pier, the Rays and other issues, though his predecessors, including Baker, have faced criticism for inaction.
In 2017, though, we have all gleaned some wisdom in St. Pete, in that one can take nothing for granted. Nothing.
The election is Tuesday, August 29. If none of the five candidates win more than 50 percent of the vote, the two biggest vote-getters will face off in a November runoff.