1. Opinion

Nickens: How St. Petersburg's most partisan mayor drove this Democrat away

Rick Baker has never met President Donald Trump. He has never contributed money to Trump's campaign or attended a Trump campaign event. He didn't attend Trump's inauguration, and he has not set foot inside the White House since Trump took office.

Yet St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's campaign against the former mayor is centered on tying Trump around Baker's neck. Never mind this is a nonpartisan race as defined by the city charter that Kriseman swore to uphold when he took office. Never mind there is nothing to tie Baker to Trump besides their Republican Party affiliation.

The Florida Democratic Party recently sent to my house a mailer with pictures of Trump and Baker — and of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with his quote, "There comes a time when silence is betrayal.'' King led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Baker is supported by Sevell Brown, the longtime former president of the SCLC chapter in St. Petersburg. Baker decisively won the poor, black neighborhoods of Midtown in the primary. But the Kriseman campaign and the Democrats would rather cheapen a phrase from King's seminal speech against the Vietnam War than deal with reality.

Another Democratic Party mailer pictures Trump and Baker and warns, "The Republicans are trying to take St. Pete. Don't let them.'' There are nearly 47,000 registered Republicans living in St. Petersburg. Does Kriseman want them to move, or is he mayor for only Democrats?

This is not the best local strategy for a mayor claiming to be a regional player when Republicans control most county and state elected offices. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn takes pains to work with most everyone, including Gov. Rick Scott. But Kriseman can't defend his record and wants to make a name for himself in state and national circles by demonstrating Democrats can defeat Republicans by screaming Trump's name and playing identity politics. He runs the most partisan, sharp-elbowed city administration since St. Petersburg adopted the strong mayor form of government nearly 25 years ago:

• City Council member Jim Kennedy, a Democrat supporting Baker, has described how Kriseman has been vindictive and "removed council members from boards, blocked our ability to dialogue with city staff and cancelled meetings on unrelated topics because of past disagreements.''

• Deveron Gibbons, an African-American Republican and a member of the St. Petersburg College board of trustees, criticized the mayor at a meeting with black police officers early in Kriseman's tenure. Kriseman called then-SPC president Bill Law to complain.

• Steve Marshall, who works in water resources, wrote the city's human resources director last year that he was "in fear of losing my job due to retaliation for revealing information and supporting documents that are contrary to the story that is being presented by the administration'' about the sewage crisis. The chief plant operator of the Northeast sewage plant sought federal whistle-blower protection.

• Kriseman transferred his longtime secretary to an unposted job at the Fire Department after "tension" between her and chief of staff Kevin King. Later, King and others warned her that negative news affects Kriseman and asked her how the Times found out.

• Chris Eaton, a Democrat and member of the LGBT community who once supported Kriseman, now supports Baker and attended Baker's campaign announcement on the steps of City Hall. King, Kriseman's chief of staff, texted Eaton during the event and called him a sellout.

• Helen Levine, a senior administrator at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, ate dinner with Baker and two Republican state senators this spring at a restaurant in Tallahassee. Levine is a Democrat who worked for Baker when he was mayor, and the dinner was mentioned on social media. Kriseman called USF president Judy Genshaft to complain.

• Kanika Tomalin, the city's African-American deputy mayor, accused a Central Avenue clothing store of racial profiling on Facebook over a dispute with a teenage clerk about a $5 gift card. The owner, who wasn't there, is a Republican who backs Baker. Even though Tomalin knows the owner, she complained on social media instead of calling her personally. Some of the first comments of support on Tomalin's Facebook post — which was later deleted — were from Kriseman's wife, Kerry, and Pinellas Democratic Party chair Susan McGrath.

• Elihu Brayboy, a prominent African-American restaurant owner and a Republican, said city staffers canceled meetings and ignored his calls and emails about his development plans for a Midtown project after he endorsed Baker. The city contacted him after the Tampa Bay Times' Charlie Frago began asking questions.

There are other examples of such intimidation inside and outside City Hall. Kriseman's partisan pressuring. King's bullying of City Council members, staff and reporters. Tomalin's outbursts in person and on Facebook. But the targets fear going public because they don't want to jeopardize their jobs, political futures or private projects.

This is not a defense of Trump, who remains stunningly unfit for the presidency. And partisan campaigns can be defensible if they stick to the facts in races for the Legislature or Congress. But Kriseman's behavior is exactly what many feared when St. Petersburg switched from a city manager form of government to a strong mayor in 1993. And it's why I recently switched my party affiliation of more than 30 years from Democrat to No Party Affiliation. St. Petersburg's most partisan mayor and his allies helped me see the light, and perhaps I should thank them for that.

Now quit sending to my house mailers that demean King's legacy and unfairly link an unfit president to St. Petersburg's best mayor.