Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Politics

Baker cautious on Pride politics

Rick and Joyce Baker strode down Central Avenue Sunday amid rainbow flags, corporate booths, and blaring music of the St. Pete Pride Festival.

"I'm glad I came," the former mayor declared, not especially convincingly, as he clutched his wife's hand. "A lot of positive energy here. It's good to see people participating. And it's a good economic boost."

It was unclear whether Baker's uncharacteristically stiff demeanor Sunday had to do with the oppressive heat, the bearded guy walking by him in a summer dress, or a reporter questioning him about his evolving views on LGBT issues. For a devoutly religious man who as mayor refused to sign a proclamation recognizing the Pride parade and festival and now wants to be mayor again, this had to be one of the more awkward weekends of his campaign.

As mayor, Baker said Sunday, he would sign that St. Pete Pride welcoming resolution in the future.

So his views on LGBT issues have changed since he left the mayor's office seven years ago? No comment.

PHOTOS: St. Pete Pride 2017 weekend

"I've just decided I'm going to do it," Baker said curtly of the proclamation. "That's all I'm going to say."

As mayor he would not raise a rainbow flag over City Hall, however, as current mayor Rick Kriseman did to recognize the gay pride month this year and the Pulse nightclub shooting last year.

"I would fly the American flag, the St. Pete flag, and the Florida flag. I think Rick Kriseman has made it a political thing by refusing to fly some flags, but flying that flag," Baker said, referring to an antiabortion activist's complaints that Kriseman's administration has shunned his requests for an antiabortion flag to fly over City Hall.

Kriseman did not attend Sunday's festival in St. Petersburg's Grand Central District because, after marching in Saturday night's Pride parade along the waterfront, he drove early Sunday to Miami Beach for the U.S. Conference of Mayors conference. In a phone interview, Kriseman noted he has been a vocal supporter of LGBT rights and priorities since he entered politics 24 years ago and has participated in St. Pete Pride activities for many years, while Baker first attended the parade last year, saying he wanted to show unity, after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando. Baker attended the parade this weekend too, but opted not to walk in it.

RELATED: Thousands converge in two St. Pete locations celebrating LGBT rights

"He still has the same beliefs. He hasn't changed," Kriseman said of Baker. "I've been a supporter of the LGBT community for 24 years. It didn't take a tragedy or an election to get me to the (pride events)."

What remains the same are his core principles that everyone should be treated with respect, said Baker, noting several openly gay senior members of his administration.

"I'm very comfortable with anybody in the community. I base people on what they contribute to the city," said Baker, a member of Northside Baptist Church, who as mayor neither supported nor vetoed the City Council's expanding the city's Human Rights Ordinance to include sexual orientation as a protected class.

St. Petersburg's election is officially nonpartisan, but Baker is a prominent Republican and Kriseman a Democrat, and both parties are aiming to rev up their respective supporters. Pinellas Democratic chairwoman Susan McGrath has been particularly antagonistic on Facebook, repeatedly blasting Baker for not supporting the Pride events or LGBT issues.

"I don't think there was a good answer for Baker," said City Council member Amy Foster, a Kriseman supporter who is gay. "If he did march in the parade, I'm not sure people would have been respectful. . . . He was in an incredibly tough space considering how much the party has been whipping people up about this."

RELATED: Despite Pride success, Grand Central business owners upset over losing parade

At Sunday's festival, many voters said they would prefer to see Baker embrace St. Pete Pride more enthusiastically, but it would not necessarily swing their vote.

"Some people don't have the time for it, some people don't have the inclination," shrugged Tim Korrot, an undecided voter wearing a cap emblazoned with, "Yes, your gaydar is accurate."

"We're a voting bloc now, and people are going to have to listen to us no matter where we're at. They don't have to be in our face to hear what we have to say."

Ryan Jordan, a running race organizer, said he would prefer Baker march in the parade, but, "I know Rick Baker, so it's not as much of a concern to me. I know he's a good leader and was a good mayor."

But most people Sunday said a city with as vibrant an LGBT scene as St. Petersburg has should have a mayor who seems more comfortable with the community than Baker does.

"If he wasn't ashamed of our community he would have been marching out there proudly," said Dan Casper, who moved from Chicago three years ago and was selling T-shirts. "If you're mayor or mayoral candidate and don't have to ---- to March in our parade, you don't have my vote. And I and a lot of people feel the same way."

Kelly Jackson, a 31-year-old gym manager, said Baker "may be accepting and tolerant, but he's not a supporter or an advocate. That bothers me."

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