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Ex-mayor Baker on government, God and Goliath

ST. PETERSBURG — God was looking out for Rick Baker when he was mayor of St. Petersburg.

In his new book, The Seamless City: A Conservative Mayor's Approach to Urban Revitalization that Can Work Anywhere, Baker posits he had divine help in trying to make St. Petersburg the best city in America.

Baker got proof of this on April 1, 2001, the day he was sworn in office. At dusk, there was a rare "green flash sunset" — a natural phenomenon where the horizon flashes green. Baker took this as an omen meaning God was with him.

"Few messages would be as clear as the one I received on the eve of my first day in office," he writes.

It's an interesting perspective in a book that Baker said is intended to serve as a how-to guide for mayors of other American cities. The chapters are divided into topics of concern for any mayor — downtown, public safety, homelessness, jobs. For each category, Baker makes the case that his approach made St. Petersburg more seamless, where all parts of the city are safe, clean and have adequate services to accommodate the people who live there.

He intermingles these urban policy treatises with his own testimonials about how a city's fate can be determined by God.

"We should ask God for his blessings and protection," Baker said. "During my first few years in office, my family spent almost every other Sunday attending services at churches throughout our community, and soliciting their members to pray for our family and for our city's success. . . . Again, I believe that God hears the corporate and individual prayers of the city and responds to those prayers."

Earlier in the book, he states that during the mayoral campaign that got him elected, "when I needed it most, God sent a sign that He was with me. I didn't know it then, but I would experience many similar moments as I faced the challenges of the next nine years."

Covering a broad terrain of his time as mayor from 2001 through 2009, the 282-page book touches on key turning points, such as the 2007 slashing of tents for the homeless by police, persuading Progress Energy Florida to build its new corporate headquarters in downtown, easing the community tension that followed a 2004 verdict clearing the city of liability in the shooting of a black teenager, and redeveloping Midtown, one of the city's most economically depressed areas.

Perhaps recognizing it might be too soon, Baker treads lightly in claiming any specific lasting legacy.

While the book is short on juicy revelations or the settling of scores, Baker's section on Midtown provides the most fodder for City Hall gossip hounds and politicos.

That's because the book hits shelves Monday, about a month after Baker's successor, Mayor Bill Foster, fired Goliath Davis as one of his top administrators.

Davis was deputy mayor under Baker, and was responsible for the progress of Midtown. Since Foster became mayor in January 2010, Baker has declined to comment about his successor or his policies and couldn't be reached to comment on this story. He has remained mum during the Davis drama.

But the book indisputably puts Baker in Davis' corner. Of all the people who worked in his administration, Davis is lauded in the most glowing terms in Baker's book. Top administrators like Mike Connors, Rick Mussett and Tish Elston are barely mentioned.

"Go had an irreplaceable level of experience, history and understanding of our city," Baker said. "If we were going to succeed in the effort to redevelop Midtown, we would need a leader who understood the community, and who had the talent and character to relentlessly pursue success. . . . Davis was the only person I believed would make the effort succeed."

Baker said he gave Davis carte blanche to do his bidding in improving Midtown, which Baker said brought necessary services like a post office, bank and grocery store to the area. By contrast, Davis and Foster rarely met one-on-one.

Foster, who was endorsed late in the 2009 mayoral campaign by Baker, said he has reviewed parts of the book, including the ones about Davis.

"I don't recall that," Foster joked when asked about the book's praise of Davis. But he then carefully added: "They had a very unique relationship based on mutual trust and respect. (Davis and I) did not have that unique relationship."

Overall, Foster said the book is a "great textbook for those seeking office and those trying to run a city."

But it can be hard to follow at times.

The book comes heavily wrapped in conservative credentials. Blurbs on the book jacket include potential Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Former Gov. Jeb Bush writes the book's forward, and rightly points out that, under Baker, the city's property tax rates were cut by almost 20 percent.

What Bush doesn't mention is that under Baker, tax revenues climbed by more than 50 percent in the same period because of a hot real estate market. And while Baker notes his affinity for the Manhattan Institute, which espouses a free-market philosophy, his book notes how Midtown was remade with public loans and $1 million the city spent to assemble land for development — tactics that are hardly laissez-faire.

In retrospect, the Baker years seem rather lucky. No economic collapse on the scale of what happened in 2008. No major hurricane or civic crisis like the recent police shootings. In Baker's view, his book makes clear, he had an assist from above.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8037.

Ex-mayor Baker on government, God and Goliath 03/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 31, 2011 10:20pm]
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