Two months before what promises to be an unusually robust mayoral primary in St. Petersburg, a prominent black minister has labeled one candidate's plan to kick off his campaign with the help of Gov. Jeb Bush as "the kiss of death as far as the black community is concerned." But the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church, should know better. To dismiss attorney and civic activist Rick Baker as hostile to the black community because he is politically close to a governor who overhauled affirmative action is to take a tortured leap in logic.
Leave aside the question of whether Bush's "One Florida" program will or will not provide greater higher education opportunities for African-American students. The point is that Baker is his own person. He has built his own credentials on issues of race and opportunity, and he has a laudable plan for economic redevelopment in St. Petersburg's predominantly black neighborhoods. Baker founded a "neighbor to neighbor" program to help disadvantaged families at Christmas. He built a training program for neighborhood leaders. He has served as chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, president of the Suncoast Children's Dream Fund and chairman of the Florida International Museum's board. He should be judged on his record.
That said, Baker also needs to tread carefully. He is savvy enough to appreciate the awkwardness of kicking off a non-partisan mayoral campaign with a fundraiser featuring Bush. The long and impressive list of people joining the event demonstrates the broad support Baker brings to the campaign. But the presence of the governor tends mainly to underscore Baker's partisan connections. What signal might that send? That being politically connected is Baker's most important asset? That he wants to run a big-money campaign?
Mayor David Fischer, who is not seeking re-election, has been criticized for not being politically active enough, for not using his bully pulpit and working his connections. Baker, who supported Fischer, clearly has made some friends in high government places. But the mayor's job is not partisan and, on a day-to-day basis, has little to do with the governor. It is about knowing your city, helping guide its vision and making sure people get their garbage collected, have places for their children to play and live in neighborhoods that are safe and inviting.
Baker knows that. He has walked the neighborhoods, delivered Christmas tidings to residents, helped answer the dreams of ailing children. In his campaign for St. Petersburg mayor, he will find that his most impressive credentials are entirely civic.