St. Petersburg mayor on bended knee

Rick Baker’s quiet, powerful faith weighs heavily in his leadership of St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG — It is impossible to separate the man from his faith.

Mayor Rick Baker prays daily, reads the Bible often and feels no ambivalence about invoking the name of God in conversation. He stops short of saying the Almighty called him to the city’s top job, but says he believes he was supposed to become mayor.

His faith, Baker said, shapes him completely. Yet the city’s popular two-term mayor, many say, has kept his religious views separate from his public duties with one exception — shunning the annual gay rights celebration.

Many politicians talk about their religious convictions to win votes. But Baker doesn’t flaunt his Christian faith.


“I haven’t seen him shove it in peoples’ faces,’’ said City Council member and state House candidate Rick Kriseman, a Jewish Democrat. “In five and a half years, I can say he’s never made me feel uncomfortable with his faith, not once.’’

Six years ago, Baker was a millionaire corporate lawyer. He had chaired the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, the Florida International Museum and the local campaigns of Gov. Jeb Bush and President Bush.
But as he considered his first political campaign, Baker decided to read the 39 books of the Old Testament.

He already had read the New Testament a few times, but said he wanted to read the entire Bible hoping for spiritual insight.

“I believe the Bible is God’s word,’’ said Baker, 50. “I believe absolutely in the power of prayer. I often pray for direction. I do believe it works.’’

On the night before his first election victory, Baker prayed on the phone with Darryl Rouson, president of the local NAACP and a supporter.

“He is someone you can ask for prayer and he’ll give it unabashedly,’’ Rouson said. “Those of us who know him know it’s never far from him. He talks it. He walks it.’’

Baker said his Christian faith influences his every decision.

It was there when he made improving the city’s poorest urban neighborhoods in Midtown and helping raise school achievement a priority.

It was even there when he lobbied for the Ocean Jewel gambling ship to dock at the city’s port.

“I try to do what I think is right for the city,’’ said Baker, who said he believed the venture was going to benefit the city financially. And at first, it was billed to city leaders as more of an entertainment operation.

Twice monthly, Baker attends an informal faith-based book study with half a dozen close friends, all local businessmen including Signature Bank president David Feaster and Brett Funeral Home co-owner Terry Brett.

They’re currently reading megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s best-seller, The Purpose Driven Life, which teaches that meaning in life comes through following God’s purposes.

“I believe Rick is the type of person who approaches every decision from what I would call his highest sense of right,’’ said Brett, Baker’s former campaign manager.

When the family of police shooting victim TyRon Lewis lost a wrongful death suit against the city two years ago, Baker pledged to raise money privately for a four-year college scholarship for Lewis’ fatherless son, then 9.

“He did not need to make that gesture,’’ Brett said. “He certainly did not do it for publicity, but he did it because it was the right thing to do.’’

Baker’s faith also has guided him in the past three years as he drew the ire of the gay community.

Despite the mayor’s religious convictions, in many ways, St. Petersburg’s gay community has flourished in the years since he was elected.

Earlier this year author Gregory Kompes listed the city in his book, The 50 Fabulous Gay-Friendly Places to Live.

Less than a year after Baker was elected, the city became one of the first in Florida to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. Baker opposed the ordinance, but did not veto it since the City Council had enough votes to override him.

And then, in 2003, the inaugural St. Pete Pride festival came to town, the first major event focused on gay rights in St. Petersburg.

Baker was asked to sign a proclamation, but declined. He was invited to attend, but again refused.

Kriseman stepped in and has done the honors ever since.

Baker is guarded in his comments about St. Pete Pride, preferring to say he doesn’t support the group’s agenda.

Brian Winfield, communications director with Equality Florida in St. Petersburg, a gay rights organization, said he thinks the mayor’s stance seems judgmental.

“I would be surprised to hear that he couldn’t appear at a Jewish community center because he doesn’t believe in Judaism,’’ Winfield said. “It doesn’t mean he can’t have brotherhood with people who believe differently.’’

Real estate agent Brian Longstreth, coordinator of St. Pete Pride, said he’s not sure if Baker’s stance is more about religion or politics.

“I respect him for his faith,’’ Longstreth said. “At the same time he represents everybody in the city.’’
While Baker’s opposition to the gay rights celebration has drawn criticism from the area’s gay community, it also has garnered many supporters.

The mayor’s views likely mirror the majority view, said Darryl Paulson, government professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

The Rev. Louis Murphy, the well-known African-American pastor of the Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, said Baker’s actions are appropriate.

“If the mayor is a Christian and he believes the Bible is the inerrant word of God, he has to stand on that,’’ Murphy said. “I believe he’s standing on his faith.’’

Kriseman said he wishes Baker would sign the proclamation and make the gay community feel welcome.

But he also offered this thought: “If the mayor wanted to,’’ Kriseman said, “he could make things terribly difficult for the organizers. He doesn’t.”

In its first year, St. Pete Pride attracted an estimated 10,000 people. This year, attendance swelled to an estimated 50,000.

Religion always has been a big part of Baker’s life. Born in a Chicago suburb, Baker was raised a Lutheran. Church was a family ritual. He became a confirmed believer as a teen at Miami’s St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church.

As an adult, his law partners invited him to a baptist church, and he said he was instantly comfortable with the more free style of worship and Bible-oriented messages.

His family now attends Northside Baptist Church, an independent congregation of about 900. Baker, his wife Joyce and their two young children sit in the same pew almost every Sunday.

His pastor, the Rev. Timothy Kroll, describes Baker as a “man of great faith.’’ He said the two men stick to family and spirituality discussions, not government or politics.

When people ask about city issues at church, Kroll said the mayor “handles it with such graciousness and helps other people see they didn’t come to church to get a pothole fixed.’’

Gov. Jeb Bush said Baker has a deep and abiding faith that has allowed him to demonstrate “servant leadership.’’

“Without fanfare, Rick walks the Christian walk in his daily life,’’ he said. “He does his job in an inclusive way. I admire him greatly.

On days when his packed calendar allows, Baker takes a beat-up Yamaha acoustic guitar that he bought for $5 at a flea market and keeps at his office in City Hall. He drives to the Boley Center where mentally disabled adults spend the day.

“I don’t consider myself to be any better person than anyone else,’’ Baker said. “I make mistakes. I do dumb things all the time.

“But I think we all have the responsibility, no matter our faith, to try and help others.’’

One spring day last year Baker balanced himself on a pool table at the center as a dozen men and women gathered around him. Some were oblivious to his presence. Others clapped and giggled.

Baker placed his fingers on his guitar strings and looked up at his audience. He asked: “You want to start with He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands?’’

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St. Petersburg Times, USA
Sep. 1, 2006
Melanie Ave
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