Saturday, June 23, 2018
Politics

In or out? Rick Baker under pressure to decide on 13th congressional race

ST. PETERSBURG — Rick Baker might run for Congress.

Depends on the day, the rumor mill and whatever vague "I'm considering it" remark the former St. Petersburg mayor might offer a reporter.

This week, the Tampa Bay Times didn't get much from Baker, who didn't even return calls requesting comment.

But if Baker isn't talking about whether he's considering running for the redrawn 13th Congressional District, Pinellas County's political class is.

The consensus?

The 59-year-old Republican should fish or cut bait.

"He's got to decide quickly," said Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos. "I don't know how much longer he can hold out from making a decision. I really don't."

The primary is Aug. 30. Battling it out on the Democratic side, Charlie Crist and Eric Lynn have been stockpiling cash and knocking on doors for months. The eventual Democratic nominee would be the instant favorite to win after the courts reconfigured the district to include heavily African-American and Democratic neighborhoods in Midtown. It also extends to the northern reaches of Clearwater, which now comprises the GOP bulwark of a suddenly Democrat-leaning district.

Without Baker, the GOP has only longshot candidates Mark Bircher and Paul DeCailly in the race.

Those forecasting a Baker run point to House Speaker Paul Ryan's visit to St. Petersburg earlier this year. Ryan met with Baker at former ambassador and GOP power broker Mel Sembler's downtown condo. And last weekend, someone paid for a robo poll gauging support in a Baker-Crist contest.

The district's new political boundaries mean that Baker would run with an objective to put up a decent fight for a congressional district held by Republicans since the 1950s — a historic beachhead for the GOP's eventual conquest of the South.

With promised party support and his popularity in St. Petersburg, Baker isn't viewed by insiders as a sacrificial lamb.

"The party is going to fight hard to keep this seat," Cretekos said.

Baker's path to victory would include winning a significant percentage of the black vote in St. Petersburg and, conversely, winning big in conservative Clearwater.

Straddling those very different constituencies is no easy task.

"Rick can do it," Cretekos said. "He's going to have to work hard. He's identified as a St. Pete person, and North County is very important. He's going to have to remember North County."

Former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who succeeded the term-limited Baker in 2010, also thinks Baker has a good shot to win.

"I think it's very winnable. Mr. Baker was a popular mayor, and he's kept his finger on the pulse of community needs pretty well," Foster said.

Both Foster and Cretekos have discussed the race with Baker. The last they heard, he hadn't made a decision.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, a Democrat and Crist supporter, considers Baker a friend. He acknowledges Baker's popularity in St. Petersburg's black community (Baker recently met with black leaders in Midtown).

Welch said he hopes Baker doesn't run. But not because he fears that a Baker candidacy would sink Crist, who also is popular in Midtown.

"He worked hard for Midtown. He has a legacy in our community," Welch said. "I'd hate to see him on the same ballot as Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. I wouldn't want to see him tarnish that legacy."

The newly drawn district is "blue-to-purple," Welch said.

"I think it would be difficult for him to win. It would be an uphill battle," he said.

Even Cretekos said he cautioned Baker about the race. Not because he doesn't think he could win, but because Cretekos isn't sure that Baker would enjoy the job.

For decades, Cretekos worked for longtime congressman, C.W. "Bill" Young. He knows Washington, D.C. And he knows Baker.

"I told Rick he would be an excellent congressman, but I also have known Rick for a lot of years, and Washington has changed. I don't know that he would be happy in D.C. Rick is an administrator. He's the kind of guy that likes to get thing done."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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