ST. PETERSBURG — As Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman race to collect endorsements, one political heavyweight has remained silent. And that silence is sparking speculation.
In the final days of Foster's 2009 bid for mayor, no elected official stumped harder for the former council member than then-Mayor Rick Baker.
The men were inseparable as they crisscrossed the city. Not now.
"To me, that's the story," said Karl Nurse, chairman of the City Council and a Kriseman supporter. "Sometimes you speak the loudest when you remain silent."
Baker did not return multiple phone calls or a message left on his front door.
Baker is still revered by many residents in the African-American neighborhoods south of Central Avenue, a key battleground for votes in the Nov. 5 general election. A Baker endorsement could help seal a victory.
"Everyone likes him and respects him," former council member Connie Kone said of Baker. "If he were to endorse, that would be helpful to some."
It's no secret in political circles that Baker isn't thrilled with Foster's tenure.
"If I were (Baker), I'd be disappointed," said Kriseman, 51. "We've seen how one has performed versus the other."
Still, Kriseman has it easy.
He can criticize Foster for the way he's running the city while heaping praise on Baker and touting how well the two worked together when Kriseman was on the council.
It's a much more delicate dance for Foster. When talking about how he's improved the city in his first term, he describes problems he inherited but doesn't mention Baker by name.
"Four years ago, I promised you a better St. Petersburg," Foster says in an early TV ad. "Remember how things used to be, and just look at us now."
Asked about the codes department at a recent forum, Foster, 50, said: "When I think of what construction and permitting was like when I took office. … We use technology now. We have online permitting processes."
While Baker is mum, people who talk to him aren't.
"Bill Foster has mishandled his relationship with Rick Baker from the first minute of his administration," said Peter Schorsch, a local blogger and political consultant.
Schorsch, who says he talks daily with Baker, said Foster rarely sought advice from Baker on major issues such as the stadium stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays or the failed Lens project.
Another contention for Baker is the lack of economic development in Midtown, a hallmark of his administration.
Other Foster critics accuse him of taking credit for initiatives that Baker started. Council members, five of whom have endorsed Kriseman, also have complained that he doesn't work the hallways of City Hall like Baker did to lobby them for support.
By this time in 2009, Baker and 19 former and current city elected leaders, including four former mayors, stood on City Hall steps to declare support for Foster over Kathleen Ford.
It's not fair to compare this race to 2009, said Scott Wagman, a St. Petersburg businessman and Foster backer.
Ford was one of Baker's biggest foes, Wagman said, so Baker was working as much to defeat Ford as he was to help Foster.
"There's no benefit in him endorsing early, he is playing a close to the vest political game," Wagman said, noting that he thinks Baker will eventually endorse.
Party politics also may be at play.
If Baker wanted to endorse Kriseman, a Democrat, it could cause problems for him with the party, especially if he aspires to higher office.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he hasn't heard of any party pressure on Baker to boost Foster.
"I would love for Rick Baker to endorse Bill Foster," he said. "Rick Baker is a very prominent Republican. Foster is a very prominent Republican."
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @ markpuente.