Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Politics

Baker draws playground count into mayoral battle

ST. PETERSBURG — As the final T's were being crossed on May campaign donation figures, Rick Baker held another political fundraiser in early June downtown at the historic Princess Martha.

The former two-term mayor spoke again about his vision of a seamless city uniting Midtown with more prosperous neighborhoods. He promised to partner with failing city schools. He touted his practical environmentalism, highlighting his cleanup of Lake Maggiore during his time as mayor between 2001 and 2010. He vowed to tackle the city's homeless population by working with faith communities like the Catholic Church.

But what really animated Baker was playgrounds. He complimented Democratic council member Jim Kennedy, who endorsed the Republican former mayor, on his help in Baker's goal to build a playground within a half-mile of every child in the city.

Playgrounds, Baker said, foster a sense of community among neighbors. By the time he had left office, Baker said, 85 percent of the city had a playground within a half-mile of every child, including partnerships with schools, churches and neighborhood associations.

But Baker didn't miss the opportunity to combine that warm, fuzzy image with a shot at incumbent Democratic Mayor Rick Kriseman and what he characterized as reckless spending.

"To me it's all about quality of life," Baker said. "Whether it's dog parks, skate board parks, rec centers ... And the trouble is, if you're $35 million over budget on the Pier and $35 million over budget on a police station, it's very hard to do that stuff."

Kriseman campaign manager Jacob Smith said the mayor makes no apologies for putting money towards policing.

"St. Pete has been moving in right direction since Rick Kriseman took office," Smith said. "Crime is down and public safety is the number one priority of a mayor. And many other initiatives such as complete streets are dedicated to making St. Petersburg an even better place to live."

Baker criticized the police department's decision to reorganize its street crimes and auto theft units, saying a mayor needs to be focused on public safety.

The police union has endorsed Kriseman.

Unlike previous fundraisers, most of Baker's comments came in response to questions from about 50 supporters who gathered on the second floor lounge area of the former hotel that is now a senior living facility.

Hosted by developers Darryl LeClair and Terry McCarthy, the event drew other big name Republicans like ambassador and fundraiser Mel Sembler, council member Ed Montanari and restaurateur Steve Westphal.

McCarthy implored the crowd to donate money to the campaign.

"We're trying to end this thing in August," McCarthy said, referring to the Aug. 29 primary. If neither Baker nor Kriseman get 50 percent of the vote, the race will continue on to Nov. 7.

The mayoral race has been touted as a history maker: Kriseman versus Baker, the battle of two potent political players in the Sunshine City.

But the potential field of mayoral candidates is growing. Perennial candidates Paul Congemi and Anthony Cates III are back for another try. And Uhuru-associated candidate Jesse Nevel has been active, mostly recently June 6 on the steps of City Hall.

Now two other candidates are in the mix. Ernisa Barnwell, 40, is a first-time candidate. It's her first run for office.

The other political newcomer is a familiar face at City Hall: Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter, 61, who has frequently assailed council members at meetings for what she sees as their inattention to the problems in the city's black community.

At times, Lassiter has used bombastic, and occasionally homophobic, language when making that critique.

Lassiter has been a Midtown activist for more than two decades. While cleaning out her library recently, she was throwing away a 1996 city budget book when she had an epiphany.

"I asked myself: Has anything changed?"

She decided the answer was no. That's why she's running, Lassiter said.

"I think I could make a difference," she said.

Conventional political wisdom has placed great importance on the black vote, especially for the Aug. 29 primary. For Baker, especially, a healthy margin of victory in Midtown is seen as crucial.

If neither Baker nor Kriseman gets 50 percent of the primary vote, they'll fight on until the Nov. 7 general election.

With Lassiter and Barnwell's entry into the race, there are now four candidates who are either black or associated with a black nationalist movement running for mayor. Will their presence on the ballot increase the chances of the mayoral election lasting until November?

Lassiter said she hasn't given any thought to whether her presence on the ballot will help or hurt either Baker or Kriseman,who are both white. She's focused on her own efforts to qualify for the ballot.

"I know I probably won't have as much money as Baker or Kriseman, but I know I have the heart," Lassiter said.

The qualifying period for the mayoral and City Council races ends June 23 at 5 p.m.

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