The November election for mayor of St. Petersburg may be as close as the August primary, when Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker each won more than 48 percent of the vote. The reasons are obvious: Both men have long records of public service, deep roots in the community and are well known to voters. Baker remains the better choice to meet St. Petersburg's challenges and ensure the city continues to thrive.
Baker, 61, served as mayor from 2001 to 2010 and helped improve low-income neighborhoods in Midtown, set the stage for downtown's renewal and generated support for public schools. He remains St. Petersburg's best strong mayor since voters adopted this form of government nearly 25 years ago. While Baker emphasized his past accomplishments before the primary election, he has smartly reintroduced himself to voters and focused more on the future.
Kriseman, 55, won the primary election by 70 votes and can count some significant accomplishments. He negotiated a reasonable agreement to let the Tampa Bay Rays look in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties for a new stadium site. He brought curbside recycling and restarted projects that had been stalled, such as a new Pier and a new police station. The city also is reinvesting in areas such as the arts and affordable housing.
But Kriseman's successes are overshadowed by poor decisions that erode our confidence in his judgment. Chief among those failures: About 200 million gallons in sewage spills that were largely the result of mismanagement and misjudgments; excessive spending on projects and personnel; and poor choices for key managers who have not served the mayor or the city well.
Here are five reasons it's time for a change in the mayor's office:
• Baker is a better steward of the public's resources. He would reduce spending on the Pier project, eliminate some positions created by Kriseman and hire fewer consultants. Under Kriseman, the new police station and firing range will cost $85 million and the new Pier project almost $80 million. A $90,000-a-year spokesman for sewers was hired, and more than $650,000 in public money was just distributed to private businesses to improve their properties in a Community Redevelopment Area. The city also has taken money from reserves to help pay for infrastructure, and that money will be repaid with borrowed money. It's all too much.
• Baker is a better advocate for public schools. He would enhance and restore his programs to offer scholarships to low-income students, build business partnerships with schools and reward teachers and principals. Kriseman talks a good game, but helping the schools has not been among his most visible priorities.
• Baker is better positioned to revitalize Midtown. As mayor, he helped bring Midtown a grocery store, credit union, health clinic and St. Petersburg College campus. Under Kriseman, Midtown has floundered. The grocery store and a drugstore closed. He has not won community support for a new restaurant in the historic Manhattan Casino. Baker has stronger connections with Midtown residents and handily won those neighborhoods in the primary election.
• Baker is a better manager. His hands-on approach is needed to ensure the sewers get fixed, spending is controlled and City Hall is cleaned out. Kriseman's big-picture leadership has not worked because his team has fallen short. The mayor's relationship with too many council members often has been rocky, his chief of staff is divisive and his public works administrator lacks credibility.
• Baker is a better dealmaker. His track record in both the public and private sectors is strong. As mayor, he helped make happen the new Salvador Dalí Museum and bring the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. After he left office, he helped transform the fading BayWalk into upscale Sundial. He has the better skills and broader vision to recruit business and oversee the redevelopment of Tropicana Field's 85 acres.
Kriseman injected partisanship into this nonpartisan race and has made it about President Donald Trump, climate change, social issues — anything but running the city. The mayor's race is not about political parties or national issues. It's about the leadership, judgment and competency needed to maintain the city's momentum. In the Nov. 7 election for mayor of St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Rick Baker.