For a self-described member of “an endangered species” — a social and fiscal conservative who was mayor of an American city — Rick Baker is an optimist. Maybe it is the setting: We spoke in Indianapolis, which along with San Diego is one of the few big American cities with a Republican mayor. But maybe it is history: When he was first elected mayor of St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2001, he lost practically all of the city’s heavily African-American Midtown neighborhood to the candidate of the African People’s Socialist party. Four years later, he won 70 percent of the overall vote — and won more than 90 percent of the vote in many Midtown precincts.
Speaking on Friday at the annual Free Market Forum hosted by Hillsdale College, the former mayor sat through economist Wayne Winegarden’s unsettling case study on California’s recently bankrupted municipalities, along with a dismal update on Detroit from me, before dispelling a bit of the gloom: “There is a path forward,” he said. “I didn’t start from where Detroit started, and it won’t be easy. But there is a path.”
As mayor, Baker put into practice a principle that continually eludes state and national leaders, Republicans and Democrats both: The right time to make painful reforms is during the boom, not during the bust. When Baker came into office, St. Petersburg was experiencing an urban renaissance, with businesses and cultural institutions flourishing in its downtown area. That sort of situation is, perversely enough, quite dangerous for municipal and state government. When business is good and tax revenues are high, Democrats want to spend more money and expand the public work force, while Republicans want to cut taxes — and, all too often, both sides get their way, which makes for a double hangover when the party is over.
Under Baker, St. Petersburg did cut taxes, by almost 20 percent, but it also cut spending deeply enough to offset the cuts. The city cut management to hire cops, built playgrounds and dog parks but did so mostly on school properties and other public lands, defended its A1 credit rating, and cast a generally hairy eyeball on the budget.
“The boom exacerbates spending,” he said. “You have an unnatural level of revenue coming in, and it’s tempting. You have to have discipline.”
St. Petersburg, like practically every other city, uses tax credits and the like to attempt to lure businesses and to encourage expansion among those firms already there, but what Baker says the city sells is quality of life. “We’ve attracted businesses here purely on quality-of-life issues, even when others were offering more financial incentives.” It sounds like Governing 101, but Baker ticks off a short list of what really matters: crime, schools, economic opportunity, taxes, good public services. And it’s not always obvious in advance what is going to catch constituents’ attention: Baker laughs as he notes that a handful of people showed up for the ribbon-cutting on a multimillion-dollar library, while a crowd showed up for the opening of a relatively inexpensive dog park. “So I built lots of dog parks,” he says.
Baker knows his booms and busts. He is a student of Florida’s infamous “lot boom” in the 1920s, when land speculators divided up orange groves into residential lots for investors gullible enough to believe that they could double their money by flipping them every few years. (Plus ça change . . .) When the bottom fell out — when “we finally ran out of suckers,” as one contemporary observer put it — St. Petersburg and other cities were left with expensive infrastructure investments made for ghost neighborhoods. As the Twenties roared elsewhere, Florida entered the Depression a few years ahead of the rest of the country. “I studied our 1930s refinancing plan, because I’m a fun guy,” Baker says. “If you know the history of Florida, you know you’re going to have booms and busts. In the boom, you have to plan for the bust.”
Like governors, mayors have to do things rather than make speeches. One of the reasons those Midtown voters were unhappy was that crime was persistently high in their neighborhood. Baker’s mayoralty started at the same time as what would turn into a five-year gang war that claimed the lives of 85 young men. Even with that going on, by 2009, the city’s murder rate was at its lowest recorded level, nearly halved from 2001. That wasn’t easy to do, and it didn’t happen because of community-outreach programs or take-back-the-night marches: It happened because the city cracked down on traffic violations, open prostitution, and drug dealing, which meant that the arrest rate went up by nearly 50 percent, while the drug-arrest rate went up by more than half. When it comes to police work, there is no substitute for . . . police work.
Republicans don’t just have a problem with non-white voters — they have a problem with voters who live in cities. As mayor, Baker had no direct power over the St. Petersburg schools, but he put school reform at the top of his agenda, anyway. “You have to advance the schools to advance the city,” he said.
Schools, public safety, conservative budget priorities, an aversion to debt, a public sector that is actually oriented toward public interests: If Republicans need an urban agenda, there is no economic or political reason that what works in St. Petersburg cannot scale up to Detroit or Los Angeles — or to New York, where the Sandinista flag has been proudly hoisted over city hall, with corrosive results that already are making themselves felt. The pension crisis, bad as it is, has not even truly begun to make its fury felt. If you think a Detroit bankruptcy is rough going, wait until it is Los Angeles or Chicago. Conservatives need to be there, and they need to be ready with policies. They also need to establish themselves as reliable city leaders, something that relatively few Republicans have had the opportunity — or possibly the inclination — to do. When Republicans do get into the big-city races, they get scant support, if any, from national organizations and the moneymen. Where was the GOP when Kevin James was looking to become Los Angeles’s answer to Rudy Giuliani? Absent, mostly. In the formally nonpartisan 2011 Chicago mayoral election, there were six Democrats and no Republican. William J. Kelly is running this time around — him and his 293 Facebook likes.
Baker is out of politics at the moment. “My kids grew up in city hall,” he explains, and so he promised that he’d keep out of the game until they were finished with high school. “My older one is a freshman in college, and my younger one just started his senior year in high school,” he says, letting the possibilities linger in the air.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.