Midtown's mayor

"Midtown's mayor" Continued...

Issue: "2012 Cities Issue," March 10, 2012

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.


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