The similarities, on a surface level at least, go beyond first names for Rick Baker and Rick Kriseman.
Both have been mayor of St. Petersburg. Kriseman is the incumbent, first elected in 2013, and he wants to retain his position. Baker is the challenger, but he was previously mayor for two terms, from April 1, 2001 to Jan. 2, 2010. Term limits for mayor of St. Petersburg are for two consecutive terms, making Baker eligible for the 2017 election.
Both were born in rival Midwest cities — Detroit for Kriseman and Chicago for Baker — but grew up mostly in Florida. Both attended major colleges in Florida, also rivals: Kriseman is a Gator, Baker is a Seminole.
And one more: Both candidates are attorneys. Kriseman's legal career focused mostly on litigation and personal inury cases, while Baker worked on corporate and business law, including mergers and acquisitions.
But the differences between the two candidates run deeper than their biographies, career ambitions and political parties. (Kriseman is a Democrat, Baker is a Republican.)
Those stark differences have made the current race for St. Petersburg mayor a hot contest, drawing money and interest statewide, even nationwide, for a campaign that's historically been non-partisan. The two candidates have already combined to raise more than $1 million — a St. Petersburg mayor's race record.
The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 29. If neither candidate gets at least 50% of the vote, there will be a runoff held on Election Day, Nov. 7.
“It's two titans of St. Petersburg politics going against each other,” says USF Professor and statewide political analyst Susan MacManus. “These are two people who have national aspirations beyond being mayor, in my opinion. And a lot of people are looking at this election for tea leaves as it relates to national elections.”
The following are career highlights of each candidate, and some of their campaign positions that highlight the differences.
Kriseman is a forthright progressive Democrat.
When he was a state representative for St. Petersburg, from 2006 to 2012, Kriseman's honors and recognition included: the Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida's 37th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade Choice Award in 2010; the Equality Florida Voice for Equality Award in 2009; and the Suncoast Sierra Club Black Bear Award in 2009. He was also named to the Democratic Leadership Council's 100 to Watch in 2003.
More recently, in December 2015, Kriseman trolled then U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump. In response to Trump's controversial immigration promises on the campaign trail, Kriseman tweeted his own ban: “I am hereby barring Donald Trump from entering St. Petersburg until we fully understand the dangerous threat posed by all Trumps.”
Kriseman, in a June interview with the Business Observer, stressed his politics and beliefs align, in many cases, with the needs of the business community.
For example, under the Kriseman administration, the city has jumped from a 66 to a perfect 100 score on the Human Rights Campaign's Municipal Equality Index. The index looks at nondiscrimination laws and employment policies, among other topics. In a related accomplishment, the St. Petersburg annual Gay Pride parade has become a big draw across the Southeast under Kriseman's watch.
This isn't just for bragging rights. Says Kriseman: “We know businesses in general, but specifically Fortune 500 companies, they want to come to a place where their employees will feel welcome.”
Kriseman says he has regularly gone on tours of businesses in the city.
“I always want to know the good, but I also want to know the bad,” Kriseman says. “You have to know about the bad. That way you can fix things that aren't working so well.”
The mayor says his office has been responsive to business leaders who say the city is too restrictive on development and regulations. “We've tried really hard to reduce the bureaucracy and regulations,” says Kriseman, citing a $77 million, mixed-use project in development in the city's Skyway Marina District as one example. “Our investments are really starting to pay off.”
Kriseman says another major business-related accomplishment of his tenure as mayor is the large role the city played in the formation of the St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corp.
One of Kriseman's longtime political friends is former Florida State Rep. Lars Hafner, who was also president of State College of Florida in Bradenton. Hafner held the District 53 seat in the House from 1992-2000, the same seat Kriseman won in 2006. But their friendship dates back to high school, when Kriseman ran Hafner's first campaign for the House, an unsuccessful effort.
Kriseman counts several current and former Democratic mayors across the state as allies and friends. The list includes Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler; former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz; former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio; and current Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. Kriseman called Iorio and Buckhorn for advice before he ran for office the first time. Kriseman also leaned on them for counsel when he hired a police chief for St. Petersburg. “In some ways, that's the most important decision a mayor can make,” says Kriseman.
Baker won his first term as mayor of St. Petersburg, in 2001, when he was mostly a novice politician. He was chairman of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce prior to his campaign, and he was politically involved in the community.
Baker's second campaign was significantly different: Riding an uber-successful first term, Baker coasted to a rout in his re-election. He won 70% of the vote, and carried every single precinct in the city.
Baker and his supporters attribute his success as mayor to both his ability to connect with a wide variety of demographics and his vision and mission to remake the city's neighborhoods. Downtown and the Midtown section were two spots in particular that went from blight to might.
Among the improvements: Multiple businesses relocated to Midtown; Progress Energy moved downtown; and Beach Drive was redeveloped into what's now one of the prime waterfront streets in Florida.
National political publications took note of Baker's efforts to revitalize St. Petersburg. In 2008, for example, Governing magazine named Baker a public official of the year.
“Anyone who visited St. Petersburg in 2001, when Rick Baker became mayor, might have a hard time recognizing the downtown now,” wrote Governing magazine. “Baker led the development of the successful Bay Walk retail-and-entertainment complex, helped relocate the Salvador Dali museum and preserved the waterfront along Tampa Bay for public use, all of which has sparked an impressive development boom.”
Baker summed up his accomplishments as mayor in the 2001 book, “The Seamless City: A Conservative Mayor's Approach to Urban Revitalization.”
Baker, who ran a law firm for a time, says “I tell people all the time I got my M.B.A from Florida State, but I got my doctorate in business the first time I had to make a payroll.”
He says that philosophy guides most of his beliefs and decision-making in working with the businesses. “I tend to believe government does not create or make jobs, that you create an environment where companies can hire people and drive growth,” he says.
Baker says a big focus in his first term as mayor was to fix what he called a “dysfunctional permit department.” Some of the problems were structural, he says, including an outdated code, while others were low morale and poor service. Part of the solution was to create a scorecard with online measurements.
Baker also initiated a quarterly meeting series, where, on a given day, anyone with a permit issue could come to City Hall and meet personally with Baker, starting at 7 a.m. “I broke the barrier between the builder and the mayor,” Baker says. “I let them come directly to me so we could eliminate the bureaucracy.”
At first, the meetings were standing-room only. But Baker says his administration fixed so much of the issues that “by the time I left office there were like three people coming to that meeting.”
Baker's policy-driven mindset is often compared to Jeb Bush, and the two have been friends for years. Bush wrote the forward to “The Seamless City: A Conservative Mayor's Approach to Urban Revitalization.”
Baker is also friends with former U.S. Rep David Jolly, R-Indian Shores. Baker was Jolly's campaign chairman in the congressman's race against former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist last year, a race Jolly lost.
Rumors had swirled for months that Baker was going to run for that seat, not Jolly. But Baker wanted to focus on being mayor again. “I believe I have more value when I'm able to run something, then if I was in the legislative arena,” Baker says.