ST. PETERSBURG— Former mayor Rick Baker says he wants to return to his old job because he fears the city's upward trajectory is in danger of plummeting because of reckless spending and poor management.
Baker took aim at his rival, incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman, during his visit Thursday with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board.
The former mayor appeared the day after Kriseman criticized Baker's management style when he served in City Hall from 2001-10. Kriseman accused Baker of intimidating and micromanaging city employees.
Baker denied that charge. He said he was both a big-picture kind of mayor, and a detail-oriented kind of mayor.
"I know I've been called a micromanager, but I'm a detail guy," Baker told the Times editorial board. "I don't just hover at 30,000 feet and never come down."
That was a jab at Kriseman's assertion Wednesday that he prefers to take a "30,000-foot" view of the city while delegating to his "bright" staff.
Baker said he was more of a hands-on mayor one who was constantly driving through the city, especially Midtown. Once when he saw dry grass at the Jordan Park housing complex, Baker said he would call it in. He visited the old Sweetbay Supermarket at Tangerine Plaza so often (it closed in 2013, and the Walmart Neighborhood Market that took its place closed in January) that the managers knew what kind of doughnuts he liked.
Even though two grocery stores have now closed there in the past four years, Baker said he would bring back a major grocer to Midtown.
"I won't rest until it's there," he said.
But can a mayor who worked in a more parochial era become a regional player now that Tampa Bay's various municipalities are trying to work more closely together?
Aside from battles over voluntary annexations, Baker said he got along with the Pinellas County Commission. But he said Kriseman's 2016 deal to allow the Tampa Bay Rays to look for a new stadium in Tampa — a deal seen as a way to keep the Rays from fleeing the bay area altogether — was a mistake.
"By doing that we have lost leverage that we would have otherwise had," Baker said.
When Baker was mayor, the Rays pitched building a waterfront stadium in downtown St. Petersburg in 2007. But the plan quickly fell apart in the face of strong opposition. Baker denied an old rumor from that failed deal: That he would only support building a new stadium if the team renamed itself the "St. Petersburg Rays."
Later, Kriseman said he has always acted in the best interests of the Tampa Bay region: "Taking no action would have doomed the team to leave the region."
Baker is a prominent Republican who has attended several GOP fundraisers on his behalf. However, he has declined to say if he voted for President Donald Trump. When asked if the Trump administration's urban policies were good for the Sunshine City, he declined to answer unless given specific examples of programs.
When asked about federal community development block grants, housing programs and other urban programs on the chopping block, Baker said he opposed those cuts.
"I will fight anybody who's doing something that hurts our city," he said. "I don't care who or where they are. I'll be respectful about it, but I'm very firm in that."
Baker spent much of his time extolling the accomplishments of his tenure, saying his advocacy for public schools and partnerships with the private sector improved city schools.
He said his work in Midtown, bringing a health clinic, grocery store, bank, post office and other amenities brought jobs and services to the poor community.
"There's a reason why you see so many red and white signs there," he said, referring to his campaign signs.
Baker was less specific about the new pier, saying residents were tired of the delays (work finally started last week). He did offer a few concrete positions: he doesn't want to add a restaurant or other structures to the pier uplands: "You don't build on parkland."
Instead Spa Beach should be transformed into something like Dell Homes Park, he said, whose splash pads have brought the community together. Kriseman said splash pads are included in his plan, which also expands available parkland.
"He would know that if he read the plan," Kriseman said.
Baker summed up his campaign pitch thusly:
"The city needs to get back on the trajectory we should be on."