Mayor Rick Baker's silent role in the St. Petersburg mayor's race

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Baker has shied away from publicly opining on the 10 mayoral candidates angling to succeed him.

He has yet to attend a single mayoral forum.

But as he finishes his nine-year run, the city's most powerful undecided voter is subtly shaping dialogue and debate within the mayoral race — intentionally or not.

Eager for his endorsement, candidates are toeing the line as they unveil their platforms, cautiously laying out how they would change the status quo without mentioning Baker by name.

They've also remained conspicuously silent about the mayor's successes at public events, although most have celebrated him in private one-on-one interviews with the Times.

The overall effect can sometimes come across as a whitewashing of the candidates' political philosophies, making it difficult to readily identify which contenders hope to continue Baker's legacy and which don't.

"They need to make themselves stand out, but they can't really overtly criticize what's been going on in City Hall because people are generally happy," said Judithanne Scour­field McLauchlan, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "Or if they were too far out there saying, 'I'm the best person to pick up the Baker mantle,' it could backfire.

"It's part of the problem why no one has been really able to get out there in front."

Like a majority of St. Petersburg voters, Baker said he is still trying to decide who to vote for in the Sept. 1 primary.

"We have some good candidates, and I think it is appropriate that they speak for themselves," Baker said.

Voters, meanwhile don't seem too eager to say goodbye.

Forty-nine percent of residents believe the city is heading in the right direction, according to a recent St. Petersburg Times poll. Twenty-nine percent think the city is on the wrong track, and 22 percent said they don't know.

Many voters also viewed Baker's City Hall as a capable steward of the public purse, with 42 percent saying the city spends tax dollars wisely and effectively always or most of the time.

Baker himself also enjoys widespread popularity, with 55 percent of voters rating his job performance as excellent or good. In contrast, only 10 percent said Baker had done a poor or not-so-good job.

The poll surveyed 600 registered city voters June 11-16 and has a 4 point margin of error.

Based on such approval ratings, the candidates should sing Baker's praises, supporters said.

"I would be riding Mayor Baker's coattails," said Sembler executive Craig Sher,

But candidate discussions in recent weeks can give the impression that St. Petersburg is a city without a mayor.

Pressed about whether he would retain or replace police Chief Chuck Harmon, lawyer Bill Foster concluded Harmon wasn't the problem during a recent mayoral forum. Harmon merely needed a new boss.

What Foster didn't say? Harmon answers to Baker.

Corporate executive Deveron Gibbons, a longtime Baker supporter, made a similar omission discussing his plan to balance the budget at an event Tuesday.

"Where we are top heavy, let's cut out the fat," Gibbons said.

What he left out? Baker has been the butcher for nine years.

Such maneuvering is smart, political observers say.

"It would be the kiss of the death to say I want to do things differently from Mayor Baker," said J. Edwin Benton, a government professor at University of South Florida Tampa.

Of the major candidates, City Council member Jamie Bennett appears the most likely to continue along the course set by Baker.

Lawyer Kathleen Ford, Baker's rival in the 2001 election, has been his fiercest critic and the staunchest advocate for change.

Foster and real estate investor Scott Wagman seem to fall somewhere in the middle of the scale. Business owner Larry Williams and Gibbons have yet to unveil detailed plans.

Foster said Baker has not played an obvious role in his public policy discussions because his tenure was marked by economic prosperity.

"It is almost like we are running for a different position," Foster said. "Times are different. Quality of life has been redefined. And I think the next mayor has different challenges."

But Baker is still mayor, and he has one more card to play.

In a twist, Baker said Thursday he could endorse a candidate in the primary. Previously, he said he would wait until the general election. He said he has narrowed the field to three or four candidates but declined to give names.

The very notion has most candidates hoping Baker favors their campaign, and if not, that he stays quiet.

"Everyone would love to have his endorsement," Bennett said.

Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8846.

FAST FACTS

Key dates

The primary is Sept. 1. The general election is Nov. 3.

On the Web

For more about the candidates and their positions, go to tampabay.com/mayor.

Mayor Rick Baker's silent role in the St. Petersburg mayor's race 07/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 4:34pm]

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