Rick Baker has been at City Hall – but not St. Pete Pride – for eight years

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More than 75,000 are expected to descend on sweltering St. Pete on Saturday, June 27, to celebrate the state’s largest LGBT Pride event. Politicians, businesses, news media and even churches will participate at the seventh annual St. Pete Pride celebration.

But once again there will be a noticeable absentee—St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker.

Baker, a Republican, has never attended St. Pete Pride and rarely acknowledges the city’s largest annual street festival. In fact, he has never signed the Proclamation declaring the month of June as St. Petersburg Pride Month.

Yet the city he has overseen for the past eight years thrives on diversity, and continues to see an ever-increasing LGBT presence.

“Progress has been made despite Mayor Baker, not because of Mayor Baker,” says Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, which is headquartered in St. Petersburg. “The fact is that the mayor does not acknowledge the team of volunteers who put together the city’s biggest annual event, even though it draws people from all over the Southeast to spend money in our area.”

St. Pete Pride is, in fact, an enormous success story despite the mayor’s lack of support. Many wonder what the future will hold for the event, and the local LGBT community, when Baker steps down later this year due to term limits. Much depends on his successor, and this year’s mayoral race couldn’t be more wide open.

Actions, words and silence
Ten people with very different backgrounds have thrown their hats into the non-partisan mayoral ring so far. The primary election is Sept. 1, and the general election likely involving the top two vote-getters will follow on Nov. 4.

The crowded race includes LGBT-friendly candidates like Scott Wagman and Steve Kornell, as well as overtly non-supportive contenders like former City Councilman Bill Foster, who unsuccessfully opposed the addition of sexual orientation to the city’s Human Rights Ordinance in 2003. Both Kornell and Wagman have focused their campaign on broader city issues, but have actively campaigned within the city’s powerful LGBT community.

Brian Longstreth is a driving force behind the city’s resurgent Grand Central District. As a co-founder of St. Pete Pride, he believes a supportive mayor would make a significant difference for the event.

“In just seven years we’ve become the largest Pride event in the state, without the mayor’s support,” Longstreth says. “I can just imagine how big we’d be if we had a mayor who appreciated our community and the festival we present. Imagine if we had [Tampa Mayor] Pam Iorio on our side of the bay. It would be amazing.”

The popular Iorio has openly supported her city’s LGBT community since being elected in 2003. She has been a high-profile speaker at the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and Winter Pride Tampa Bay. She has expanded benefits to same-sex partners of city employees, and decried Hillsborough County’s ban on Pride displays in public facilities.

MayorBaker_806535940.jpgWhile Baker didn’t veto the St. Petersburg City Council’s near unanimous decision to expand the city’s Human Rights Ordinance to include sexual orientation as a protected class, he didn’t actively support it either.

“Baker didn’t veto [the HRO] in part because I think he’s pretty much tried to stay as silent as possible on issues that affect our community—like equality issues,” Smith says. “It’s about maintaining his power base in as many political, economic and cultural arenas as possible.”

Smith recalls that Baker was more vocal in his opposition to LGBT issues when first elected eight years ago. Since then he has quietly acknowledged the contributions of local gays and lesbians. He has actively supported the efforts of openly gay couple Tom Barrett and Len Johnson to revitalize the Roser Park/Ingleside at Bayboro neighborhood, and has attended events at their impressive home on several occasions.

“He’s an absolutely phenomenal mayor,” Johnson told Watermark back in 2005. “He’s a great administrator, open to new ideas and always 100% supportive of anything we want to do that makes sense.”

But Baker alienated many LGBT supporters when he explained his distance from St. Pete Pride to the St. Petersburg Times in 2005.

“Personally, I don’t support the general agenda of the Pride event,” he said. “And there are mixed feelings in the community. I’ve gotten petitions signed by hundreds of people who oppose the festival.”

State Representative and St. Petersburg resident Rick Kriseman served on the City Council with Baker. He argues that the mayor’s actions—he has not sought to stop St. Pete Pride, nor did he work actively against expansion of the HRO—are more significant than his words.

“I know from personal conversations that the mayor clearly recognizes the positive impact the LGBT community has had on St. Petersburg,” Kriseman told Watermark. “I honestly believe it is something he struggles with. He is a deeply religious man. He is also committed to uplifting St. Petersburg. It puts him in a difficult place.”

What makes a good mayor
Mayor Baker is largely seen as a competent mayor. He won re-election in 2005 with more than 70 percent of votes cast, and has been credited with lowering crime rates, encouraging development and revitalizing neighborhoods. Despite a struggling national economy, improvements to St. Petersburg’s downtown and waterfront are ongoing, and museums and performing arts centers are expanding. Throughout, the mayor has been like a tall rudder; a steady presence at frequent public appearances within the city he clearly loves.

But for some, that’s not enough.

“Equality at the end of the law is not negotiable,” says Smith. “Someone could be an incredibly powerful and influential sherriff who cleaned up a town, but if he’s a racist, he’s not a good leader. When the highest elected official is hostile toward a group, there’s a falsity there. It’s false to say you want someone who is good at everything except recognizing a part of the community.”

Longstreth agrees. In the past he has voiced support for Baker’s leadership, but he has also attacked the mayor’s silence when it comes to LGBT events and issues. Longstreth has publicly invited Iorio to St. Pete Pride on numerous occasions “because our own Mayor won’t even acknowledge us.”

Current St. Pete Pride board member David Schauer believes Baker has been a selective impediment for the event, in marked contrast to a supportive City Council and city administration. Schauer blames Baker for the city’s recent opposition to placing rainbow flags throughout the Grand Central District. The sticking point: a selectively enforced ordinance saying that banners must actively promote an event.

At the last minute, and after local media publicized the flag flap, the words “St. Pete Pride” were added to the banners to comply. They were hung along LongstrethMayor_417559537.jpgCentral Ave., 1st Ave. N. and 1st Ave. S. on June 10, and will remain there through the end of the month.

“Mayor Rick Baker… has thrown up every roadblock that he could as St. Pete Mayor,” Schauer, a lawyer, told the St. Petersburg Times. “What the city is basically doing is saying, ‘It’s okay for us to decorate the poles for a Christian holiday, but it’s not okay for you to decorate the poles for a gay street festival. They are in violation of the Constitution based on that alone.”

Despite Baker’s hostile indifference, and largely because of St. Pete Pride, his city was listed in author Gregory Kompes’ 2006 book, The 50 Fabulous Gay-Friendly Places to Live. That same year, the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Convention and Visitors Bureau began actively advertising to LGBT travelers on a national scale.

As Baker’s tenure in St. Petersburg enters its waning months, local LGBT leaders are hopeful that a more inclusive mayor will take the helm.

“We’ve done so much in this city without the support of the mayor’s office,” says Brian Longstreth. “Just imagine what we could accomplish with that support.”

A DIVERSE RACE

St. Petersburg’s mayor is elected to a four-year term and is paid $162,314 annually. As the city’s chief administrator, the mayor oversees a $217 million operating budget and 2,800 municipal employees. Ten candidates have entered the non-partisan race (Sharon Russ dropped out last week), but that doesn’t mean political parties aren’t actively involved. The primary election is Sept. 1, and if none obtains a majority the top vote-getters will face off on Nov. 3.

Jamie Bennett
Bennett (D) owns a small business in St. Petersburg, and served as the chairman of the City Beautiful Commission from 1982 to 1995. He was elected to City Commission District 5 in 2001 and was chairman for two years. He has attended St. Pete Pride in the past, and advertised in this year’s St. Pete Pride program.

Paul Congemi

Congemi (I) has been labeled the KFC candidate after employees at a local restaurant said he dropped the F-bomb and then allegedly told police “Don’t touch me. I am running for mayor and once I get elected, you will be fired.” He has no political experience and has focused almost exclusively on homelessness in the city.


Richard Eldridge

Eldridge (I) hasn’t created a firm platform for his mayoral race yet, but instead focuses on the platforms of his opponents and provides commentary on his Web site. The former Marine attends the “First Baptist Church on Gandy,” according to the site.

Kathleen Ford
Ford (D) has practiced law in Florida since 1992 and served on City Council from 1996 to 2001. She ran an unsuccessful mayoral campaign against Baker in 2001. She has voiced support for St. Pete Pride in the past.

Bill Foster
Foster (R), an attorney, was first elected to St. Petersburg City Council in 1999 and re-elected in 2003. He served as the Chairman of City Council in 2004 and 2006. Foster attempted to derail the city’s human rights ordinance to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Deveron Gibbons
Gibbons (R) is a third generation St. Pete native and businessman who is deeply involved in education and civic affairs. He has not answered questions directly pertaining to LGBT issues and was recently endorsed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Alex Haak
Haak (D) hasn’t focused much on LGBT issues but instead has said he would like to see the capital of Florida relocate to St. Petersburg. He says the city needs smaller buses that make more frequent stops.

Ed Helm
Helm (D) ran an unsuccessful campaign against Baker in 2004 and focused mostly on recycling issues in the city. He has been a long-time advocate for LGBT rights and is very active in the local Democratic party.

Scott Wagman
Wagman (D) is a business executive who ran Scott Paint and has lived in St. Petersburg for 25 years. He has taken pro-LGBT stances, and has recruited numerous LGBT volunteers for his campaign. He plans to attend St. Pete Pride.

Larry Williams
Williams (D) served on the St. Petersburg City Council from 1995 to 200 1and was Vice Chairman twice and Chairman twice. He previously ran for mayor in 2001. His campaign site promises he will be “open and inclusive.”

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