ST. PETERSBURG — Popular former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker announced Saturday he will not run for Pinellas County's open congressional seat, setting the stage for an intense battle among a handful of contenders for the Republican nomination.
"I treasure my time as mayor and may likely consider a return to public service at some point — but not now," Baker said. "After much prayerful thought I have decided that I will not run for Congress at this time."
After more than four decades in office, longtime Republican U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young died Oct. 18 and potential candidates are scrambling to campaign for a Jan. 14 special primary election and a March 11 general election.
Mayors, former mayors, former aides to Young and others have expressed interest in a seat that hasn't been open since the 1960s.
Almost immediately after Baker's announcement, Young's former general counsel David Jolly announced he would run, saying, "It's something that I think I'm uniquely qualified for and I say that very humbly."
Young's widow, Beverly, who considered running herself, endorsed Jolly instead, saying she was behind him "200 percent because it's important to us that we try not to skip a beat in Pinellas County."
Among other Republican candidates, former Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said he is still "strongly considering" running and leaning toward doing so. Former County Commissioner Neil Brickfield also said he is leaning toward it. County Commissioner Karen Seel said she's still deciding.
George Cretekos, a longtime Pinellas-based aide to Young who is now Clearwater's mayor, decided on Saturday against trying to get to Washington. "I'm a local kind of guy," he said.
And former state Rep. Larry Crow said he also won't run in the special election, saying his decision was partly based on the short time frame and on Beverly Young's endorsement of Jolly.
Jolly, who plans a campaign kickoff event soon, said his combination of Washington experience and local ties make him well-suited to the job. The lobbyist was born in Dunedin, and also headed Young's Pinellas office for a time.
Baker, with high name recognition and deep ties in GOP political circles, was by most accounts the strongest Republican prospect. His entry in the race likely would have made it easier for GOP leaders to clear the field and avoid a primary free-for-all. Baker had been receiving considerable pressure and encouragement to run — or at least make up his mind.
"I am thankful for the many friends who have encouraged me to run for Congress. The honor is greater because of the respect I have for congressman Bill Young and his long and accomplished record of public service," he said.
The Democratic side is more settled — candidates Alex Sink and Jessica Ehrlich are already on the campaign trail. Both showed up at the Largo/Mid-Pinellas Democratic Club on Saturday, where club members were bubbly at the prospect of winning the seat for their party.
Sink currently resides in Thonotosassa, in eastern Hillsborough County, but she's now house-hunting within the 13th Congressional District.
"You're right, the eyes of the nation are going to be on this race because it's the only game in town," she told about 75 people at Largo's Taylor Park.
She said she had the background and ability to fight "Washington dysfunction" and make strides on such issues as flood insurance rates. She added that a campaign office was about to open on Ulmerton Road and "I'm looking forward to being your neighbor."
She was well received.
"The Republicans are terrified that Alex Sink is going to be the next U.S. congresswoman from Florida," Democratic County Commissioner Janet Long exulted. "They can't find anyone willing to be on the ballot."
Many people affixed Sink stickers to their shirts and rain jackets, as they dished up hot dogs, baked beans, pasta salad and cole slaw. She said plenty of people were enthusiastically telling her, " 'Oh, I'm so glad you got in the race.' "
Sink's entry fueled speculation Ehrlich would drop out, but on Saturday, Ehrlich asserted, "I'm running for Congress" with no thought of quitting.
Ehrlich noted that Congressional District 13 is rare in that it's contained all within one county (it stretches from Fort De Soto Park to Dunedin, but leaves out a wide swath of southern and downtown St. Petersburg.)
And, drawing a distinction between her and Sink, she said, "Pinellas County is my home and it's made up of all of my friends and neighbors," she said.
Ehrlich ran against Young last year, and already was campaigning against him before he first announced plans to retire, and then passed away.