The Magazine

It Takes a Mayor

Is there a conservative formula for city government?

Oct 17, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 05 • By JENNIFER A. MARSHALL
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‘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. Baker isn’t just being humble: He’s a social and economic conservative, and 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 conservatives made much of public service at the local level. When young conservatives talk about running for office they typically mean state legislatures 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 the statehouses, not county seats or city halls. Baker suggests that this is a blind spot: “If America is to continue to embody Ronald Reagan’s vision of the shining city on a hill,” he writes, “then our great nation must have great cities!

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 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 to advance the entire city by addressing the needs of all the parts.

Baker’s approach in St. Petersburg got results and garnered wide support. In 2005, running for reelection against the county Democratic chairman in a city where less than 30 percent of registered voters are Republicans, he carried every precinct. In the heart of the black, Democratic neighborhood of Midtown, he won more than 90 percent of the vote—which, in a 2001 primary, had gone for the chairman of the African People’s Socialist party.

How Baker earned Midtown’s confidence is part of his story here. Historically, this was the black section of segregated St. Petersburg: Decades of social erosion had led to the exodus of almost a third of its population between 1980 and 2000, and 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 a platform of citywide economic redevelopment, with a special emphasis on Midtown and, once elected, 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.”

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, Baker concluded, the redevelopment project needed the right leader, someone respected citywide and committed to the people of Midtown. He found that leader in police chief Goliath Davis. St. Petersburg’s first black chief, Davis had a doctorate in criminology, was comfortable in any community, and,  most important, shared the mayor’s passion for building a “seamless city.”

Baker appointed Davis deputy mayor for Midtown economic development, and together the pair set out to get the city government as a whole on board. They won neighborhood support for their plan to pursue redevelopment while cracking down on crime, and by the end of Baker’s tenure, violent crime in Midtown had dropped 26 percent and business reengagement and neighborhood renewal began transforming the district.

Measuring progress was central to Baker’s formula for success, in Midtown and elsewhere. He instituted an online “City Scorecard” and lowered property tax rates and a city business tax for small employers. He reduced staff at City Hall while improving services; police response time dropped; sidewalks got repaired within two weeks rather than two years; he established an Economic Stability Fund in case of disaster or economic downturn. 

As a politician, Baker clearly delighted in the challenge of governing—a far less pristine enterprise than the theoretical politics in which many of us engage—and particularly relished governing at the local level, the often-mundane, complicated, unpredictable, messy business of dealing directly with people. One day, during a cab ride, it dawned on him that taxi drivers are a city’s first ambassadors. He instituted a series of coffees for cabbies so that they could learn more about local events and get flyers from the city visitors bureau for customers. Baker also 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 in St. Petersburg and shake each student’s hand—“after reminding them to look into my eyes when they speak and tell me their name clearly.”

Baker wrote this book for a target audience of would-be conservative mayors and city leaders. But ambitious as that may be, his kind of rallying call may well be what is needed to revive local leadership: From Detroit to Lowell, Massachusetts, hundreds of American cities burst with immense needs and opportunities to test and reestablish conservative templates. Baker’s response:

During the mornings when I was mayor .  .  . 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.

 Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation and author of Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century.