ST. PETERSBURG — The debate over the Tampa Bay Rays' $1-billion stadium and redevelopment plan has dominated local politics for nearly nine months.
City Council members, keenly aware their political futures hung in the balance, declined to embrace the proposal but refused to kill it. Grass roots activists rallied outside City Hall. Government leaders arranged their summer vacations around Rays meetings.
And the mayor? He kept a low profile to the very end. Only after the team pulled back on its demand for a November referendum did the mayor announce that the team needs a new stadium and he wants it downtown.
It was classic Rick Baker, refusing to take sides publicly but working behind the scenes to craft a last-minute deal that appeared to appease stadium proponents and opponents alike.
"The mayor has a style where he holds back, he waits, so when he does play his cards in the end, he can be the pivotal force that ends up changing the whole game," said City Council member Karl Nurse, a former Baker political opponent. "He is a very strategic guy, and it works."
Baker's private wheeling and dealing became evident this week when the team announced it would indefinitely postpone the stadium vote. That decision, team leaders said, came only after a meeting between Baker and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg.
And it was Baker who stood with team leaders Wednesday when the Rays broke the news.
That public show of support contrasts starkly with Baker's tight-lipped stance in recent months.
In an interview Friday, Baker said he withheld his opinion not to build political leverage, but because he needed time to study the Rays' proposal.
"If my job is to analyze a proposal, I think it is only fair that I do that," he said. "If you give your opinion before completing the analysis, you've pre-empted the analysis. Why would you do that?"
Baker also said that he has been vocal about a couple of Rays issues: The team should stay put, and it should include "St. Petersburg" in its name.
"I give my opinion all the time," he said.
But when asked why he preferred a downtown stadium, Baker declined to elaborate. His opinion, he said, would "pre-empt" community discussion on where the new stadium should be located.
Baker wasn't the only elected official reluctant to take sides in the stadium debate.
"We were put into this difficult position: Do you support this proposal, yes or no?" said City Council member Jeff Danner. "Without knowing about the finances or the parking or all that stuff, it was difficult to say yes."
But this isn't the first time Baker has kept his political maneuvering quiet.
Since he took office in 2001, Baker has successfully negotiated secret deals that resulted in the city's annual Grand Prix and the expansion of St. Petersburg College.
But a few times, his quiet haggling failed, including a plan to free up Albert Whitted Airport for private development.
For the most part, community leaders say they are confident the stadium proposal won't meet that same fate.
"Obviously, I wish Mayor Baker had come out before now in support of a new stadium," said Kenny Locke, founder of Fans for Waterfront Stadium. "But I am also just thrilled that he is trying to lead an effort to rally the community around a viable solution."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]