ST. PETERSBURG — As the city prepares for the largest LGBT celebration in Florida this weekend, this year's St. Pete Pride parade will march right into the midst of the heated election battle between incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker.
And LGBT residents and political junkies alike will finally learn the answer to a question many have been asking for months:
Will Baker finally march in Pride, after avoiding it as mayor from 2001-10?
The answer? Sort of.
"He attended Pride night with the (Tampa Bay) Rowdies earlier this month," said campaign spokeswoman Brigitta Shouppe.
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She was referring to the June 10 St. Pete Pride event held with the Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium. Baker also works for Rowdies owner Bill Edwards.
"(Baker) also intends to visit the festival on Sunday to go by the Rowdies' tent and plans to stop by for some of the parade as he did last year," Shouppe said.
But unlike his rival candidate, Baker said he does not plan to march in the city's largest annual parade Saturday, which last year drew more than 200,000 people.
"Because I choose to participate in other ways," Baker said in a statement relayed by his campaign.
As Baker re-enters Sunshine City politics after a seven-year hiatus, few things have changed more than the rising political power and visibility of the city's LGBT residents.
The acceptance of the gay community in St. Petersburg, and across the country, is light years ahead of Baker's last year in office in 2010.
And there are few issues that divide the candidates as starkly as how they have approached Pride. Baker shunned the Pride parade during his time as mayor nearly a decade ago, while Kriseman has embraced the celebration since becoming mayor in 2014.
Kriseman was the first mayor to march in the Pride parade in 2014. In 2015, he officiated the marriage of two men at City Hall. In 2016, after Orlando's Pulse massacre, he ordered police officers to secure a candlelight vigil on the steps of City Hall. Then he wore a rainbow cape to the Pride parade.
Kriseman said Baker's decision not to march in the parade this year is telling. It also was a chance for the mayor to continue one of his main attacks, that voting for Baker would be a step backward for St. Petersburg.
"It wasn't a question for me whether I was going to be involved," Kriseman said. "I'm the mayor of the city. The LGBT community is a big part of this community.
"It speaks volumes as to where his head is on this issue."
Baker's position has evolved since he said he didn't support the "general agenda" of gay pride events back when he was mayor. At his May 9 announcement speech on the steps of City Hall, Baker made a point to include the LGBT community in his vision of a seamless city.
He said wanted to be mayor for all residents and the gay community is a "vital, important part of our community."
The next day, prominent Democratic and LGBT activist Susan McGrath said words aren't enough.
"He said the minimum that he could in response to all of the comments and concern from the city of St. Petersburg, not just from LBGT community, but from all people who want an open, progressive and welcoming city," she said at a May 10 protest of Baker's candidacy. She did not return calls seeking comment.
Earlier this week, Baker said his desire to build bridges to the city's large and prominent gay population is sincere.
"When I talk about seamlessness, I'm serious about that," he said. "My objective is to find common ground."
Baker was a mayor who didn't care about someone's sexual orientation, said Melanie Bevan, a former top St. Petersburg police commander who is now chief of the Bradenton Police Department. She said Baker's stance on Pride should not be interpreted as anti-gay.
Bevan, who is gay, said her former boss always treated her with respect.
"It was really quite simply a non-issue," she said. "When somebody starts accusing someone of being homophobic, I feel an ethical obligation to stand up and say no. I would hope somebody would do that for me."
Baker met Eric Skains, St. Pete Pride's executive director, for coffee a few weeks ago. Skains said Baker wasn't negative about the parade. However, Skains didn't want to go into further detail because they agreed to keep their conversation private.
Earlier this week, before Baker's announcement, Skains said he was hopeful the former mayor would take part in the parade.
"It would be great if he would be able to participate," Skains said. "He'd be reaching a large audience who would probably be keeping an eye out on that type of stuff.
"It would only help him if he's there. It only hurts him if he's not."