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Rick Baker: Lessons from a successful Florida mayor

Stick to your principles and make government work are mantras for St. Petersburg's GOP chief executive.

By Staff writer / August 18, 2009

Mayor Rick Baker of St. Petersburg, Fla., says he won't run for statewide office once he leaves office – at least not right away.

Courtesy of Lara Cerri/St. Petersburg Times

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Washington

Jeb Bush is mad at Rick Baker. Well, not really. But the former Florida governor wanted to see the mayor of St. Petersburg aim for statewide office – say, governor – but Mayor Baker has declined. His children are in middle school, and he didn’t want to be away from home so much campaigning.

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At age 52, Baker doesn’t exactly qualify as one of the “green shoots” of a Republican Party that is trying to reinvent itself nationally.

But as he finishes his second term as mayor of Florida’s fourth-largest city (population 250,000) – with a predominantly Democratic populace – Baker offers lessons on how to govern in a way that he believes reflects Republican values.

Lesson No. 1: “Stick to your principles,” Baker says in an interview. As a fiscal conservative, he either lowered taxes or kept them steady every year in office, and still set aside reserves. He cut 300 city-funded jobs, while adding police. He has also resisted union pressure to use those reserves during the recession.

“We [Republicans] should be the ones who are for balancing the budget,” says Baker. But “sticking to your principles doesn’t mean being partisan. I couldn’t even tell you who on my staff is Republican or Democratic.”

Lesson No. 2: Be problem-solvers.

“People get the feeling that government doesn’t know how to make things work anymore – whether it’s local, state, or national,” he says. “We need to be the party that demonstrates that we can make America work again.”

Baker took office in 2001 with a four-part plan – focused on public safety, redevelopment, economic development, and schools – and he has carried it out. Baker doesn’t take credit for the revival of downtown, a 30-year effort, but does point to his efforts in Midtown, a low-income black neighborhood.

There, he created a new position for a deputy mayor, who brought in new services, such as a library, post office, and college campus, which led businesses to open up. Poverty and drug abuse remain high, but violent crime has dropped, according to Governing magazine, which named Baker one of its “officials of the year” in 2008.

In winning reelection overwhelmingly in 2005, Baker won more than 75 percent of the minority vote, says Darryl Paulson, a government professor at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.

Baker has supported the city’s county-run schools by attracting corporate money and mentors, and chairs Florida’s commission on sustainability.

But one constituency is looking forward to Baker’s retirement: the gay community. As a social conservative, Baker has refused to issue a proclamation marking annual gay pride festivities, or to march in the gay pride parade.

Still, Baker has more fans than foes. In an e-mail, ex-Governor Bush says: “I have encouraged Rick to seek statewide office at some time in the future. He would make a fine governor or any cabinet officer.”

Baker’s reply: “I’m not saying never, just not at this very moment.”

Part of a series of articles on reshaping the Republican party.

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