ST. PETERSBURG — It was a day of prayer and celebration.
Bill Foster became the city's 53rd mayor Saturday afternoon in a emotional swearing-in ceremony that marked a new chapter in St. Petersburg's political history.
Foster, 46, replaced Rick Baker, who was term-limited after nearly nine years at the helm.
"I am honored, I am humbled and I pray we will continue to do the work of the people," said Foster, who won November's hotly contested mayoral election with 53 percent of the vote.
Foster, a St. Petersburg native and former City Council member with longtime dreams of running his hometown, celebrated his milestone with a day filled with spiritual contemplation.
He asked the Rev. Clarence Williams of Mount Zion AME Church on 16th Street S., a religious landmark in the local black community, to begin the morning with a church service, in which Williams called on parishioners to examine their service to their community.
Foster, a devout Christian, sat with his family in the front pew, occasionally bobbing his shoulders and head, as a half-dozen pastors led the congregation in worship. There were hymns of praise and Scripture readings.
Near the end of the service, Williams asked Foster and all present council members to stand at the center of the church. Williams paired a pastor with each elected official, and as church members stretched out their hands in support, the congregation prayed that the city move forward, "in the name of Jesus."
"There are certain events in one's life that you would like to begin in prayer," said Foster prior to the service. "So I prayed when I got married and the first thing I am going to do prior to assuming the duties is to pray."
Later, Foster, city staffers, residents and elected leaders gathered at City Hall to bid outgoing Mayor Rick Baker farewell during his final council meeting.
Jerry Lancaster, Foster's longtime pastor at Starkey Road Baptist Church in Seminole, gave an invocation, asking God to help Foster lead, "with the compassion of the Lord Jesus Christ."
"We thank you, Lord, that he is a man of faith," said Lancaster.
Baker was presented with a key to the city. The City Council declared Jan. 2, 2010, "Mayor Rick Baker Day." Baker, also a Christian conservative, thanked God for giving him life and blessing the city.
Of Foster, Baker said, "I'll be proud to call him my mayor."
Newly elected council member Steve Kornell also was sworn in Saturday, along with council members Jim Kennedy, Leslie Curran and Jeff Danner, who were all re-elected in November.
Curran, the council's longest-serving member, was named chairman. Council member Herb Polson is now vice chairman.
On the campaign trail, Foster was often criticized for inserting religious rhetoric into secular debates.
As a council member from 1998 to 2008, Foster opposed allowing alcohol sales to start at 11 a.m. Sundays and asked city attorneys to research a ban on all-night dance parties called raves. After he had left office, Foster wrote a letter to the Pinellas County School Board regarding the teaching of evolution. It said, in part, that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution helped Adolf Hitler rise to power in Nazi Germany.
Foster insisted his religious beliefs haven't and won't overlap with his governing.
As a candidate, he promised to continue many of Baker's successful policies, relentlessly pursue crime and streamline City Hall.
In his oath, Foster pledged to uphold the Constitution. He wore a purple-striped tie that matched the jacket of his wife, Wendy.
Proclaimed St. Petersburg's mayor, Foster, who starts work Monday, hugged his two teenage children and shook the hands of several council members.
He then sat down on the council dais and looked around. "All right," he said. "Let's get to work."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]