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It's Rick vs. Rick: Former mayor Rick Baker will challenge incumbent St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman

ST. PETERSBURG — The city’s next mayoral battle will pit Rick vs. Rick.

Former Mayor Rick Baker went to City Hall himself Monday and ended months of speculation when he filed the paperwork to challenge incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman.

They are two very different mayors from opposite sides of the political spectrum with devoted followings in what promises to be the most contentious election since the city adopted a strong mayor system 24 years ago.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Bill Foster, who served as mayor between the Baker and Kriseman administrations.

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It will also be the first time a former strong mayor has challenged a sitting mayor since St. Petersburg empowered the executive branch of city government in 1993. That election was a fierce fight. Two decades later, here comes a heavyweight match that political junkies have been anticipating for months:

That’s because this election will have a partisan edge, one that started in 2013. That’s when Kriseman, a Democrat, defeated Foster, a Republican, in a contest widely seen as the first to inject partisan fervor into the traditionally nonpartisan office. Now Kriseman will again face a Republican with strong conservative bona fides: Baker has been a longtime ally of former Gov. Jeb Bush and last year served as campaign chair for former U.S. Rep. David Jolly.

“For a nonpartisan office, this is likely to be a highly partisan race,” said University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus. “These are two experienced politicians. Both have won in this geography. Both have a lot of passion.”

Baker is scheduled to make a public announcement at 8 a.m. Tuesday in front of City Hall. He declined to comment Monday, and his campaign did not get off to a smooth start: The phone number listed on his paperwork initially connected to an old campaign line for Pinellas County Tax Collector Charles Thomas. The Baker campaign said that was just a glitch.

The 60-year-old Baker served as mayor from 2001 to 2010, winning both elections easily. In recent years, he has mulled runs for Congress or statewide office. Kriseman was a council member during much of Baker’s tenure.

His supporters said Baker’s popularity as a mayor during the city’s boom years and his reputation for sound management make him an outstanding candidate.

“He’s got all the tools to win this,” Foster said.

Baker recently re-entered public life as the face of the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ campaign to persuade voters to allow the city to negotiate a contract that would allow the team to upgrade Al Lang Stadium. The team hopes to win a Major League Soccer expansion franchise.

Last week, 87 percent of voters approved the Rowdies referendum, giving Baker a big win leading up to the mayor’s race. Kriseman also supported the referendum, and both shared a stage last week when the election results came in.

Now they’re back on opposing sides of a race that Kriseman, 54, has spent weeks prepping for. The incumbent has already raised more than $400,000 and netted a long list of endorsements, including many prominent African-American leaders. Support in the black community was one of Baker’s strengths when he first ran for mayor.

Kriseman’s campaign wasted no time Monday criticizing Baker once he officially entered the race, saying the former mayor was out of step with a progressive city.

“Rick Baker had eight years to see out his vision for St. Pete,” said Jacob Smith, Kriseman’s campaign manager. “Unfortunately for him, the city has become a much more inclusive place that’s not ready to turn back the clock.”

That’s a reference not just to the black community, but also to the city’s politically active LGBT community. It’s a key constituency that Kriseman has embraced — and that has grown in power and stature since Baker was mayor.

It’s also a constituency that may not be receptive to Baker, who would not sign a proclamation for the annual St. Pete Pride parade and never attended the event as mayor.

  Baker’s campaign responded that Kriseman was trying to divide the city through “partisan and personal attack.”

“Rick Baker has spent the last two decades building a seamless city and fighting for all the people of St. Petersburg,” said a statement from Baker campaign director Nick Hansen. 

The black vote and the LGBT vote, two traditional Democratic bastions, may be crucial to the Republican candidate’s chances this year.

“Rick Baker, despite multiple attempts of outreach to him made it abundantly clear that he wasn’t wiling to support all the people of this city,” said Susan McGrath, the chairwoman of the Pinellas County Democratic Party. “Mayor Kriseman is a mayor of all people.”

Foster sees it differently. To him, the race will come down to management styles.

“This is an opportunity for people to judge two mayors,” he said, “two guys who have done the job.”  

  Three other candidates are in the running: Paul Congemi and Anthony Cates III have made unsuccessful runs in the past. Jesse Nevel is making his first run.

The primary is Aug. 29: If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, then the two highest vote getters will face each other in the general election on Nov. 7.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 30, 2017 4:46pm]

    

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