As many of you know, I worked as former Mayor Rick Baker’s deputy mayor for Midtown economic development. Baker is currently seeking the job again and as a member of his campaign team, I am deeply disappointed by what appears to be a divisive, win-at-any-cost strategy by the Kriseman campaign.
The falsehoods and misrepresentations by Kriseman’s campaign ghost writers and other campaign associates are alarming. The campaign insists on making a nonpartisan race partisan, and willfully distorts Baker’s record. The campaign’s emphasis on partisan politics represents a divisive act of desperation that harms the entire city.
Mayor Baker’s campaign reflects his love and passion for the entire city of St. Petersburg, a proven record of working with Democrats and Republicans, and a continued commitment to building a seamless city. The political leaders the next mayor interfaces with will be Republican, Democratic and more. Kriseman’s inability to work with diverse elected officials will only impede his ability to resolve many of the problems he and his administration have created.
An article by School Board member Rene Flowers contains a number of distortions I would like to address. In the first place, it ignores the impact of term limits on an elected official’s ability to complete a course of work.
For the Midtown initiative, we adopted the tag line “Continuing the Progress.” It acknowledged improvements by the Fischer administration as we implemented plans to build upon them and improve the quality of life for residents and visitors.
Some initiatives started during Baker’s administration were not completed due to term limits -- for example, the acquisition of the Merriweather property where Grady McCall operated his restaurant and the former Sydney Harden Grocery Store property, current home of the Creole Café. Yet, Flowers criticizes Baker for running out of time.
Baker’s position on flying flags over City Hall has been distorted by Flowers, and she never mentions all requests were not honored by Kriseman. She praises Kriseman for flying the Carter G. Woodson Museum’s flag during Black History Month, but fails to acknowledge the recent acquisition of the Woodson Museum would not have been possible if not for Mayor Baker’s foundational work with the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. I am sure Midtown residents would prefer access to a grocery store over having a flag flown over City Hall.
Baker’s commitment to diversity is solid and has been reflected in employment, economic development, personnel promotions and historical affirmations. Baker was the first mayor to ask the Midtown community for their definition of economic development as well as their indices of success.
He appointed the first African-American assistant fire chief and elevated Clarence Scott to the position of parks director. He named the current Dell Holmes Park in honor of the city’s first African-American parks director and hired Dwight Wilson, the first African-American assistant director of water resources. Kriseman fired Wilson and the Scotts.
The first official city recognition and celebration of the 12 courageous African-American police officers responsible for the integration of the St. Petersburg Police Department occurred during the Baker administration along with the naming of the sanitation compound for civil rights activist Joseph Savage, leader of the garbage strike that improved working conditions and benefits for sanitation workers in our city.
In the face of criticism and advice to the contrary, Mayor Baker was the first elected mayor in the city’s recent history to make education a cornerstone of his campaign and administration.
He appointed the first cabinet administrator for education and enacted the Mayor’s Mentors and More initiative. City personnel mentored students, business partners were recruited and assigned to our schools, teachers and principals were supported, the Top Apple Program was instituted and private funds were raised to secure four-year college scholarships for 1,000 free and reduced-lunch school children. Student performance and school grades improved in part because of these efforts.
St. Petersburg College was recruited to bring its brand to the 22nd Street Corridor and it successfully moved from a small building on the west side of the corridor to the Achievement Center (east side of 22nd Street) and subsequently to its current location. However, due to term limits, Mayor Baker was out of office when construction began on the Midtown campus.
The Midtown Economic Development initiative was asset based with an emphasis on preserving Midtown’s historical structures—the Train Station, Manhattan Casino, Royal Theatre (Boys and Girls Club), Mercy Hospital (Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center) and Jordan Elementary School (Head Start). The restorations also provided jobs and other opportunities for Midtown residents.
Baker worked with existing tenants of some structures and found tenants for the vacant ones. Unlike the current administration, we partnered with African American non-profits and property owners. Urban Development Solutions (Larry Newsome, Sen. Darryl Rouson, the Rev. Louis Murphy) worked with us to secure Sylvia’s for the Manhattan Casino. Again, due to term limits, the project was subsequently completed during Mayor Foster’s administration.
In response to the community’s requests, Mayor Rick Baker brought a library, two grocery stores, the Childs Park YMCA, a bank and a full service post office to Midtown, along with jobs and a Job Corps center. Mayor Baker partnered again with Urban Development Solutions for the grocery store and African-American property owners Felton, Wooten, Felton for the post office.
Contrary to Flowers' assertion, the current full service post office in Midtown was originally a postal carrier facility. Midtown residents were not allowed in the building. They could not buy stamps, mail a letter, secure a post office box or access amenities other residents of our city were afforded at post offices in their communities.
In the event mail was misrouted or not delivered to Midtown residents, they were directed to appear at a window outside the facility and brave the elements to claim their mail and/or packages. The Baker administration’s complaints about residents standing in the rain and sun to retrieve mail prompted the postal service to erect an awning. The image was reminiscent of the Jim Crow era. Attempts to correct the situation started with the postmaster in St. Pete, then Tampa and Memphis. It ended at the White House with a Republican president.
Mayor Baker provided the funds necessary for the buildout of Midtown’s full service postal facility and I am sure building owners Felton, Wooten and Felton will acknowledge the facility renovations and the fact it was not a full service post office prior to Mayor Baker’s intervention.
Another issue of paramount importance to the Midtown community Mayor Baker addressed was health care. He partnered with the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center, St. Petersburg College, the University of Florida Dental School, Florida A&M School of Pharmacy and Bayfront Medical Center for an array of medical services ranging from healthy eating to dentistry and patient care. Congressman Bill Young worked with Mayor Baker and the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center administrators to secure the necessary funding.
Midtown voters in the recent primary election perceived their lives improved significantly during the Baker Administration and voted accordingly. Midtown knows Baker and despite Kriseman’s attempts to make his party affiliation an issue, Mayor Baker’s commitment to Midtown carried the day.
Voters recognized Baker’s leadership during that period of historic change, and change -- not party -- was the operative word in the primary election. The Midtown vote is the greatest testament to why our mayoral elections are non-partisan. Voters understand leadership, commitment, compassion, and competence are the true keys to effectiveness, and these qualities explain why Baker is embraced in Midtown and Kriseman is not.
The current mayor, Rick Kriseman, is a Democrat who ignores the community, oversees the loss of basic services and presides over community gentrification. Yet, he insists Midtown and surrounding communities should vote for him simply because of his party affiliation.
I don’t think so.
Goliath J. Davis III, Ph.D., is a former police chief of St. Petersburg. His above commentary was originally printed in The Weekly Challenger.
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