Sparks fly as Kriseman and Baker square off in St. Petersburg mayoral debate

By Rod Gipson, Digital Media Producer
Last Updated: Wednesday, July 26, 2017, 6:48 AM EDT
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In Tuesday night's latest version of the battle of the Ricks, both faced tough questions.  

And current mayor Rick Kriseman and the former mayor Rick Baker answered those questions, trading barbs on a variety of issues.

The St. Petersburg mayoral debate, hosted by Bay News 9 and the Tampa Bay Times, pitted Kriseman and Baker in a forum answering questions on issues from the city's sewage issues to Midtown development to city staffing changes. 

Kriseman is seeking his second term while Baker is looking to retake the office he held from 2001 to 2010. The debate aired live on Bay News 9.

A number of issues were discussed during the hour-long forum that took place in front of an invited audience at the Palladium Theater, but one topic dominated: The sewage issues that led to millions of gallons of waste dumped into Tampa Bay. 

"I believe if the maintenance program continued after I left office and if we would have kept Alfred Whitted open today then I don't believe we would have had the amount of significant overflows that we have had," former mayor Baker said. 

Mayor Kriseman, a Democrat, admitted his office could have handled the situation differently. 

"Clearly I’m sitting in the seat and while I rely on my people it still rests with me," Kriseman said, adding "Mr. Baker said that he had no spills during his time as mayor and that’s just simply not true."

A Republican, Baker countered by saying he would reopen the closed Albert Whitted sewage plant, which was shut down in August 2015. The state recently ordered the city to follow a $300-plus million plan to fix the sewage crisis. 

Other hot topics the candidates discussed were the Tampa Bay Rays and the ongoing stadium issue (both said they want the team to stay in St. Pete), Midtown and the city's LGBTQ relationship. 

Kriseman quickly pointed out a past Baker statement about how he won't raise the rainbow flag over city hall. 

"What I have said about the flag is that I don’t think you should pick and choose," Baker said. "And that’s a way of dividing. Mayor Kriseman has spent four years of dividing our community into segments." 

The current mayor said Pride month and the parade and street festival are one of the biggest events of the year for the city and for Baker to not fully participate "sends a message to the community that you're not as important - that they don't rise to the same level as the rest of community."

Baker blamed Kriseman for dropping the ball in Midtown where two grocery stores have closed in Tangerine Plaza. 

Kriseman fired back, saying his administration plans to get it right when a retail store returns to the plaza. 

And there were a few tense exchanges, including when the men discussed the future of police chief Anthony Holloway, whom Kriseman appointed in 2014.

"We can’t get a commitment that the most important job, public safety, that a mayor has that he won’t keep Tony Holloway," Kriseman said. "I think that’s something the voters need to understand. 

"If you vote for Rick Baker you may not have a chief Tony Holloway."

Baker jumped in saying he never said he would not retain the chief of police. 

"He (Kriseman) sounds like he’s trying to threaten people that I’m gonna get rid of Chief Holloway," Baker said. "I’ve never said that. Never implied it. I actually met with Chief Holloway. I like him, I just don’t like his boss." 

The two also sparred over affordable housing in the city, improving African-American business opportunities and the state of national politics.  

That led to a suprising topic at the debate: Sarah Palin. 

Kriseman questioned Baker about why he thought Palin was a good vice-presidential candidate in2008. 

Baker would have none it - saying Kriseman was playing partisan politics and needed to focus on running St. Petersburg.