October 13, 2011 | Commentary on Family and Marriage, Understanding Poverty

It Takes a Mayor

“Many saw me as an unlikely urban champion,” admits Rick Baker, who served two terms as mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida’s fourth-largest city, and was named Governing magazine’s top mayor in 2008. Mayor Baker isn’t just being humble. He’s a social and economic conservative. Conservatives generally aren’t known for leading with an antipoverty, urban renewal agenda.

Nor, for all our fondness for Burke’s little platoons and Tocqueville’s ode to decentralized government, have we made much of public service at the local level. When young conservatives talk about running for office, they typically mean state legislature or Congress—not city council or mayor. When conservative national leaders rally the base to get America back on track, they’re usually talking about reclaiming the presidency, Congress and statehouses—not county seats or city halls.

Mayor Baker suggests we check our blind spot. “If America is to continue to embody Ronald Reagan’s vision of the shining city on a hill, then our great nation must have great cities,” he writes in Seamless City: A Conservative Mayor’s Approach to Urban Revitalization That Can Work Anywhere.

The notion of a “seamless city” may not be obvious on first hearing. But this description captures Baker’s governing philosophy:

In a seamless city, when you go from one part of town to another, you never cross a seam—whether a street, interstate overpass, or railroad track—and enter a place where you do not want to be …where you feel the need to reach over and lock your car door; an area with boarded-up buildings, broken windows, and large tracts of urban blight, with drug dealers on the street corner.

A seamless city is an attitude that we are all in it together. It means that we do not pit one area against the other, but work toward advancing the entire city by addressing the needs of the parts.

Mayor Baker’s approach to leading St. Petersburg got results and garnered wide support. In 2005, running for re-election against the chairman of the county Democratic Party in a city where less than 30 percent of voters are registered Republicans, he carried every single precinct.

In the heart of the black, Democratic neighborhood of Midtown, the mayor won more than 90 percent of the vote. In the 2001 primary, these same precincts had gone for the chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party.

How Baker earned Midtown’s confidence is part of his story in Seamless City. Historically, this was the black section of segregated St. Petersburg. Decades of social erosion had led to the exodus of almost a third of the community’s population between 1980 and 2000. Dilapidated buildings “reflected despair and hopelessness, like someone had given up.” Before his tenure, Midtown didn’t even have a name. Bureaucrats called it the “Challenge Area.”

Baker campaigned for mayor in 2001 on citywide economic redevelopment, with a special emphasis on Midtown. Once elected, he made a moral and economic case “to the entire community that the redevelopment of Midtown was the right thing to do, and was in everyone’s best interest,” Baker writes:

There were children in parts of our community who were growing up in conditions that most of us would never want our own children to experience…. When an area is economically depressed, the city must put a disproportionately large amount of money into social and public safety services for the area, and the city receives disproportionately less in tax revenues than it receives from other areas of the city.

To build consensus, the mayor concluded, the redevelopment project needed the right leader— someone respected citywide and committed to the people of Midtown. He found that leader in St. Pete’s police chief, Goliath Davis. The city’s first black police chief, Davis had a Ph.D. in criminology and was comfortable in any community. Most importantly, “Go” Davis shared the mayor’s passion for building a seamless city. Baker appointed him deputy mayor for Midtown economic development.

Together, Baker and Davis set out to get the whole city government team on board. (“Midtown was everybody’s job!”) They won neighborhood support for the plan to pursue redevelopment while cracking down on crime. By 2009, violent crime in Midtown dropped 26 percent; business re-engagement and neighborhood renewal began transforming the district.

Measuring progress was central to Baker’s formula for success, in Midtown and beyond. He instituted an online “City Scorecard.” He lowered property tax rates and a city business tax for small employers. City Hall reduced staff while improving services. Police response time dropped. Sidewalks got repaired within two weeks rather than taking more than two years.

The city established an Economic Stability Fund in case of disaster or economic downturn.

Baker clearly delights in the challenge of governing, which is far less pristine than the theoretical politics in which many of us engage. He particularly relishes governing at the local level—the often mundane, complicated, unpredictable, messy business of dealing directly with people. Some politicians seem to love nothing more than their ideas, others the thrill of campaigning. Baker likes people, and he likes serving them. Sure, he’s four-square when it comes to principled ideas (he became a Republican after reading Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose) and a more-than-competent campaigner (see Midtown). But he’s particularly creative and energized when he engages with citizens.

During a cab ride one day, it dawned on the mayor that taxi drivers are a city’s first ambassadors. He instituted a series of coffees for cabbies, so they could learn more about city events and get flyers from the visitors bureau for their customers. Baker made a point of meeting each driver who attended. Recalling the shaping influence of his own childhood handshake with a congressman, he decided to visit every school and shake each student’s hand—“after reminding them to look into my eyes when they speak and tell me their name clearly.”

As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush writes in the introduction, “Mayor Baker was an outstanding leader. He led by example. … And he led with a servant’s heart.”

Baker’s book is full of plainspoken storytelling and no-nonsense, how-to’s for the city leader. Whether it’s public safety, schools, jobs or homelessness, he distills clear and specific guidelines for local decision making. (Item No. 1 in a list of four ways to attract jobs: “Improve the service within the building department in order to make doing business in the city a positive experience.”)

His love of local leadership—and desire for it to capture others’ imagination—is clear:

During the mornings when I was mayor of St. Petersburg, I could not wait to get out of bed and drive to City Hall to begin the day. Each day had its share of struggles, but there were also great opportunities and exciting challenges. I can think of few better jobs.

The best illustration of Rick Baker’s enthusiasm is the simple fact that he wrote this book for a target audience of would-be conservative mayors and other city leaders. Ambitious as it may be, this kind of rallying cry is exactly what we need to revive the call to local leadership. From Detroit, Mich., to Lowell, Mass., hundreds of cities burst with immense needs and opportunities to test and re-establish conservative templates.

Baker inscribes one chapter with Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” In Seamless City, he casts a vision for local leadership and amply equips those who recognize this as another time for choosing.

Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Jennifer A. Marshall Vice President for the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow

First appeared in The Weekly Standard