When Rick Baker walks into the Sweetbay Supermarket in St. Petersburg's Midtown, a woman in the produce section elbows her companion, smiles, and nods with raised eyebrows toward the tall white man who looks slightly out of place. A man picking out vegetables drops his bag to shake Baker's hand as two little girls run over and beam up at him with wide-eyed admiration.
"Hello, Mayor," their mother says, laughing a little at the girls' reaction.
Baker, who left office in January 2010, doesn't bother to correct her or any of the other half-dozen shoppers and staff who greet him with his former title. He hasn't gotten used to his new status any more than his former constituents have. And the residents of this predominantly African-American and almost exclusively Democratic community aren't ready to let go of the conservative leader they came to love. Baker probably will be known as "mayor" in Midtown for decades, no matter who holds the official title.
During his almost nine years in office, from 2001 to 2010, Baker championed the revitalization of Midtown, a historically tight-knit community that has unraveled through drugs, violent crime, blight, and hopelessness. Turning around the area was one of Baker's four main election platform tenets. By the time he reached the end of his two-term limit, overall crime in Midtown had dropped 9.2 percent and the abandoned buildings and junk-filled lots had given way to busy shopping centers and crowded playgrounds.
Midtown's resurrection is just one chapter in St. Petersburg's success story. In the late 1990s St. Petersburg, a city of about 245,000 at the tip of the peninsula that forms Tampa Bay, captured national attention for long-simmering tension between white and African-American communities that exploded into two nights of race riots in 1996. In less than a decade, Baker led a revitalization of the entire city, cutting both crime and tax rates and championing the return of restaurants, retail, and residential projects to the city's depressed downtown waterfront.
Baker's success earned him recognition throughout Florida and invitations to explain his strategy to members of Congress.
Baker tells the story of his time leading St. Petersburg in a new book, The Seamless City: A Conservative Mayor's Approach to Urban Revitalization That Can Work Anywhere. Part a history of Baker's experiences and part instruction manual for other city leaders, the book shows how a Republican in a Democratic stronghold applied conservative ideology to crime fighting, economic development, and governmental management.
The year Baker took office, 17 out of every 1,000 St. Petersburg residents were victims of violent crime. Twenty-one people were murdered. Baker had a strategy for putting more police officers on the streets, but he knew the shootings and drug deals wouldn't stop unless the city changed the atmosphere that created crime.
Baker's plan to lower the crime rate started with making Midtown a place where people were proud to live. He gathered input at neighborhood meetings and then focused the city's economic development efforts on five community additions that residents most wanted: a grocery store, a bank, a post office, a medical clinic, and a library. The city began with buying land for new parks and partnering with the local housing authority to rebuild a run-down public housing development with federal funds.
Then, city crews swept litter off streets and scrubbed graffiti from abandoned buildings. Code enforcement teams cracked down on overgrown lots and junk-filled yards. Teams of city employees volunteered to help elderly residents paint and repair their houses. Public works crews installed new stoplights and used brick pavers to create crosswalks. Once residents felt like they had something to defend, they started to report illegal activity and turn in drug dealers.
From inside the historic Royal Theater, once the only place for St. Petersburg's African-American residents to watch movies, Herbert Murphy can look out at 22nd Street, the main thoroughfare running through Midtown. Before Baker took office, Murphy could watch prostitutes flagging down customers less than 100 yards from where the children enrolled in his Boys and Girls Club performing arts program practiced their dance routines and did their homework. The old theater, run down as it was at the time, used to have heavy metal gates covering the entrance. The few blocks around the theater were not a place you wanted to be after dark, Murphy said. Now, the street is clean and crime-free, the gates are gone, and Murphy never worries about the children walking home.
"He was the only mayor we ever had who cared about this community," Murphy said of Baker. "He kept all of his promises."
Baker's second initiative targeted one of crime's catalysts: hopelessness. In 2002, only 53 percent of St. Petersburg's students graduated from high school. Baker knew that if the city wanted to prevent them from becoming criminals, it would have to give them better options: "If kids feel that they have no hope of having a successful life, they're much more likely to commit crimes. They have nothing to lose. That's not an excuse, but it means that you can't just focus on the punishment."
During his first term, Baker started a mentoring program in the local schools. He personally visited every elementary classroom to encourage the students to stay in school, and he recruited area businesses to partner with each campus. The program trained more than 1,200 mentors from the business community and 200 city staffers who spent one hour a week working with the children. The Mayor's Doorway Scholarships offered college funds, provided mostly by local businesses, to middle-school students who eventually earned their high-school diploma. By the end of the 2008-09 school year, 81 percent of the city's seniors were graduating.
The 2009 crime statistics, the most current available, proved Baker's holistic approach worked. The city's overall violent crime rate dropped 26 percent from 2001 levels. The murder rate dropped 82 percent during the same time. Although Baker credits the police department's hard work in cracking down on crime, the program's success relied on everything the city did in the community. "If I had done nothing in Midtown, I'm not sure the crime rates would have changed," he said.
Baker won reelection to his second term in 2005 with 70 percent of the vote, an unusual margin of victory in St. Petersburg, especially for a conservative. He became a rising star in Florida's Republican party. Supporters urged him, unsuccessfully, to jump into the 2010 governor's race. But not everyone loved the mayor.
Baker faced one of his ugliest fights in early 2007 when the police department enforced the removal of a tent city occupied by dozens of homeless people, in violation of city code. The officers slashed the tops off tents occupied by anyone who refused to leave, a tactic that caused a huge outcry in the local media and among the homeless advocacy groups supporting the encampment. Protesters inundated city hall with phone calls, emails, and letters.
Protesters even stood outside Baker's church one Sunday morning, holding signs that said "Rick didn't learn anything at church!" and "Hey Mayor Baker Jesus was homeless too." Baker worked with the local chapter of Catholic Charities to establish a homeless triage center a few months after the tent city debacle, but he also encouraged the city council to pass ordinances restricting temporary shelters, sleeping in the right-of-way, and panhandling. Because of such efforts, the National Coalition for the Homeless named St. Petersburg the second-meanest city in the country.
Baker also ran afoul of the American Civil Liberties Union for urging the council to cede the public sidewalk in front of a downtown retail project to its developer, who wanted to stop protestors from gathering in front of the stores. Members of St. Pete for Peace and the People's International Democratic Uhuru Movement, an African-American group that never warmed up to Baker, put on protests before the sidewalk ordinance passed. Those earned the city and the mayor some unwelcome, negative publicity in The New York Times.
Baker also endured violent street protests that erupted in 2004 after the city successfully fended off a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a man shot by police 10 years earlier. More criticism and protests came in 2005 after police officers shot a 19-year-old African-American man during a drug raid. The shooting prompted an FBI investigation and more unwanted publicity.
The most consistent criticism Baker faced stemmed from his refusal to acknowledge or take part in St. Petersburg's gay pride event. He didn't try to stop it, but he didn't encourage it, a stance liberal opponents could not forgive. Baker, always open about his faith, said he considered it an honor to be criticized for sticking by his convictions. He frequently talked about the role God played in his life, and, he believed, in the city's rejuvenation.
Many problems remained in the city when Baker left office in January, but most residents said progress had occurred. The two little girls who approached Baker at the Sweetbay Supermarket were able to remind him about the time he visited their schools. As he did regularly with children when we walked around, he bent down closer to their height and asked them how school was going.
When asked why he spent so much time and political capital on Midtown, Baker pointed to the two girls and said, "There should be a basic level of environment that kids should grow up in-all kids, not just your kids or my kids. That's our moral obligation."