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05.10.11

America's Greatest Mayor?

In a bold new book, Rick Baker, the former mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida, lays out his vision for smart, urban renewal that has John Avlon saying this Republican beats more famous mayors for the title.

At the end of the movie The Candidate, Robert Redford unexpectedly wins a U.S. Senate seat in California. Upon hearing the news, momentarily stunned, he turns around to his campaign consultants and asks ‘What do we do now?’

In some ways that’s where the new book The Seamless City begins. It is the summation of the former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker’s eight years on the job, turning a city that  many believed had seen its best days—with an aging population, decaying civic infrastructure and simmering racial tensions—into a vibrant American city on the upswing.

The turnaround is so stark that it almost seems unreasonable that it could have happened within a decade. Cities can fall apart fast—there’s a natural inertia that tends toward civic decay.

Turnarounds are harder to execute. They require constant focus, planning, and follow through.

That is what Mayor Rick Baker achieved and this book offers his blueprint. The Seamless City is essential reading for any American mayor or active urban citizen. It offers insight into why I believe Rick Baker deserves to be known as America’s best mayor of the past decade.

A cabby can matter more than the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.

Other mayors may be better known. After all, St. Petersburg is only the 68th largest city in the U.S. and the fourth-largest in Florida. But Baker did not inherit a city that was already turning around, like many mayors who entered office after the urban renaissance of the 1990s. He did not have billion-dollar budgets or national attention. He did the hard work himself, inspiring a city government and its citizens to aim higher and believe that together they could achieve excellence.

book-cover---the-seamless-city
The Seamless City: A Conservative Mayor's Approach to Urban Revitalization that Can Work Anywhere By Rick Baker 350 pages. Regnery Publishing. $27.95. ()

The combination of stories and statistics is compelling. When Baker took office, it took 2½ years to fill a pothole in St. Petersburg. When he left, it was down to just a few days. At the outset of his administration, the mayor only received two regular reports—crime statistics and rainfall averages. When Baker left office, a "City Scorecard" was placed online so that every citizen could view the vital statistics of their neighborhood. The city’s 34 agencies and 3,000 employees had defined goals and a sense of mission they measured progress against. Crime dropped dramatically, new businesses invested in the city, museums opened and a major league ball-team settled in. The quality of life improved for all its citizens—most notably the core African-American community that had long been ghettoized, who found themselves in a revived community re-christened “Midtown.”

Rick Baker accomplished all of this while being a conservative in an urban environment. “As a Republican who is conservative both fiscally and socially,” he writes, “I governed during my first term as a mayor with these philosophies, although I did it without stressing a partisan approach.” He did not polarize to prove a point—he was inclusive without compromising his integrity, driven by results instead of divisive ideological rhetoric.

The ultimate political measure of his success was in his reelection in 2005. He ran against the county Democratic Party chair—this in a city with less than 30 percent voters registered Republican. On Election Day, Baker won every single precinct in the city with over 70 percent, including 90 percent of the vote in Midtown—a district which four years before had been won by the chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party. Every Republican should take note.

But politics takes a backseat to policy in The Seamless City. The anecdotes and aphorisms are engaging but also useful. It offers detailed examinations of the five core areas of concentration that should be the priorities of any successful city and mayor: improving public safety; promoting economic development; supporting public schools; building strong neighborhoods; and improving government operations.

For example, one chapter in the book discusses how to deal with homeless populations, including an outreach program that involves the public—offering wallet-size handouts that ask citizens “Want to help the homeless? Give them a hand up, not a hand out” and then suggested a dozen different local outreach organizations where they could donate to or volunteer.

He speaks frankly about the role that faith played in his life, offering internal calm in the storms. He also offers memorable snapshots of a mayor's life, from the informal "Home Depot polls" where neighbors make their opinions known, to the all-important "Taxi Cab Test," in which cab drivers function as urban ambassadors to visitors. The takeaway: A cabby can matter more than the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau.

The Seamless City is a well-written and useful book that deserves to endure. It should be placed on the desk of any new mayor as a welcome gift alongside Steve Goldsmith’s The Entrepreneurial City and Rudy Giuliani’s Leadership.

Humanity has hit a tipping point over the past decade. The majority of people are living in cities, rather than rural areas, and Baker’s book is framed with an inspired analysis of why cities matter and how great cities become the backbone of a great country. At a time when Americans often debate the proper role of the federal government, Baker reminds us that our cities are the laboratories of democracy

All this is easier said than done. But at the end of the day, the art of effective leadership is about aiming for a higher horizon and delivering visible results. The animating idea is determination to make your city the best. After all, as Baker says, “who’s going to be inspired by an effort or follow a leader whose goal is to become the third best city in Florida or the eighth best in the country? People are naturally drawn to an effort that strives for excellence. They want to be part of something that is important. When you empower people by believing in them and their ultimate success, you can lift an entire city.”

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John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.