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Avoiding guilt by association

Rick Baker's friends are rallying.

As the St. Petersburg mayoral campaign kicks off, they're talking about Baker's long-standing commitment to the community _ all of it.

They're saying that just because Gov. Jeb Bush is anchoring Baker's big-ticket fundraiser in a couple of weeks doesn't mean that the mayoral candidate buys into all of the governor's beliefs.

We're talking about Bush's retooling of affirmative action and whether it is the prism through which African-American voters see the governor and anyone who makes nice with him.

Calvin Harris, the first African-American county commissioner in Pinellas, implores you to be a little more sophisticated about how you view politics and power.

Harris, who is one of 14 co-chairs of the event to be held Jan. 12 at the University of South Florida, said that, regardless of what you think of Bush's One Florida plan, he still will run the state when the St. Petersburg's next mayor takes office.

"I think that all of us have been disappointed in some of the governor's policies," said Harris, a Democrat whose candidacy was supported by some of the county's moderate Republicans. "But Jeb Bush is not going to set the goals and policies of Rick Baker's administration."

Harris said he has known Baker for several years and respects Baker's thoughts on economic development, job creation and education _ particularly how they will work in the neighborhoods where the majority of the city's African-American residents live.

Those ideas, Harris said, have little to do with Bush's executive order last year that ended set-asides for women and minorities. When Bush replaced affirmative action with his One Florida plan, the situation percolated into a full-blown protest as thousands angrily marched on the Capitol earlier this year.

Those who believe in Baker's candidacy hope that his mayoral opponents will not be able to harness that fury.

"What I'm hoping is that we don't make Rick Baker's candidacy a referendum on Jeb Bush," Harris said.

Bishop John Copeland, vice president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, an umbrella group of mostly African-American churches, shares that hope.

"I think that if people held it against him that Bush is his friend, people would be making a mistake," said Copeland, who has long been active in community issues. "You might have a friend who is my enemy, but that doesn't mean you and I can't be friends."

What does Baker have to say about it? Ever the pragmatist, he tried to separate the issue from the office.

"Clearly, some people have concerns about Jeb, and Jeb needs to work on that," Baker said. "But he is the governor of the state, and it's helpful to develop a relationship with him."

Continuing on a practical tack, Baker said that he has plans to improve the Dome Industrial Park, which likely would generate more jobs. And he wants to make sure that federal funds designed to prepare people for employment are being spent effectively.

His ideas apparently are appreciated in some quarters.

A quick scan of the more than 150 names of those who are hosting or chairing the fundraising event _ which has a suggested donation of $200 a ticket _ makes it clear that Baker has friends in all the right places.

Former City Council member David Welch, who is one of them, said he was certain that there are African-Americans who resent Bush being the featured guest at Baker's event. Nevertheless, he said he thought Baker would weather the criticism.

Said Welch: "I've known Rick Baker for 10 or 15 years, and I know what he's done for this community. He'll be okay."