Baker: It’s what I think of me
Baker certainly earned a reputation as a direct man – he could give even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie a lesson on straight talk, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell has said – who often bombarded critics at public events.

By Andrew Staub — The News Journal

Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker will leave office Monday, taking with him a resume of impressive achievements perhaps only overshadowed by the long list of insults he hurled at critics during his unprecedented 12 years in office.

Even as others debate the outgoing mayor’s legacy, the 70-year-old Baker has remained his normal blunt self, flatly admitting he cares little for how the outside world will judge his time in office.

“I don’t think it matters what people think of you. It’s what I think of me. I have to live with me,” Baker said. “I have to go to bed at night and sleep and get up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror and think, ‘Oh you’re doing fine. You’re doing what you’re supposed to do. You’re doing the right thing.'”

Just as he governed for more than a decade, Baker made no apologies in his final week in office. Wilmington’s first three-term mayor said in a recent interview he is happy with a record that includes greening initiatives, revitalization of the Riverfront and new state revenue packages that helped weather a severe economic downturn.

Political observers believe Baker ranks among the best of modern Wilmington mayors, but also point to a chance the violent crime that plagued Wilmington during Baker’s tenure could mar his accomplishments.

Others wonder whether Baker’s personality will drown out the good will his record has built. He never shied from using profanity in public speeches and routinely called city council members who fought him “idiots”

“He had some really high successes and some really low lows,” said Loretta Walsh, a councilwoman who served through most of Baker’s three terms.

From the start of his tenure in 2001, Baker didn’t operate like the standard politician, said Bill Montgomery, the mayor’s chief of staff for much of his reign.

Baker cleaned up the everyday operations of city government, refused to cut budget deals and refrained from foisting political appointees upon department heads, Montgomery said.

“That Jim Baker is the anti-politician,” Montgomery said. “Some of that was more of the public persona, but in practice it was really good stuff.”

It was a departure from the days of Baker’s predecessor, former Mayor James H. Sills Jr., who drew a primary challenge from Baker after his administration was battered by issues including a severe budget deficit, a scandal involving the Suburban Street Fund and several reverse-discrimination lawsuits.

Baker, a district councilman who became the city’s first African-American council president, never would have challenged Sills, the city’s first black mayor, had he not been frustrated with city government, Walsh said.

Originally, Baker wanted to retire from politics as council president, he said, but his supporters urged him to run for mayor.

“I would have been perfectly happy to ride off into the sunset and let someone else worry about it,” Baker said. “But you can’t do that. You can’t talk about what’s wrong and then do nothing but sit on your rear end and point fingers.”

Crime a ‘black mark’

Baker ran a scandal-free government, but the city struggled to rein in violent crime. In 2010, a record 27 people were killed in homicides, a mark nearly equaled in 2012.

Statistics from the Delaware Criminal Justice Council show there were 61 shooting victims in Wilmington during Baker’s first year in office. That number fluctuated through 2007, before spiking to 140 victims in 2008, 128 in 2009 and 142 in 2010.

When Baker took office, he had goals to reduce crime by 80 percent over eight years.

“The public safety is a real black mark. I don’t know how to get around that very much,” said Cassandra Marshall, president of the Quaker Hill Neighborhood Association. “The public safety thing is one of the reasons why people are afraid of the city, and they don’t need to be.”

Baker stuck with police Chief Michael Szczerba for all 12 years, despite frequent criticism. Last summer, in the wake of three homicides in 12 hours, Baker acknowledged the best political move might have been making a change at the top of the police department, yet he traced the roots of the violence to deeper issues better solved by society than by a police chief.

By making arrests, police can only treat the symptoms of larger issues, such as the deterioration of the family structure, that lead to violent offenders, Szczerba said, calling it a “shame” that Baker’s legacy could be overshadowed by a small percentage of criminals.

The city averaged 13.5 homicides annually in Baker’s first term, according to figures provided by Szczerba, before the numbers began to climb toward a peak in 2007.

“There’s no mayor or police chief that could enforce personal responsibility, choices or values,” Szczerba said.

Baker built the police force to its strongest numbers ever and tried aggressive tactics, most notably using “jump out” squads to attack drug activity. Teams of about 20 officers swarmed street corners almost daily in the summer of 2002, frisking people for drugs or guns and snapping photos for intelligence files.

Eventually, the city stopped the practice amid concerns over civil liberties, though Baker insisted it was legal – “If I say it’s constitutional, it’s constitutional,” he famously said in 2002. Baker still contends the strategy worked.

In the last half of Baker’s final term, the city began to implement a new policing strategy based on methods that cleared open-air drug markets in High Point, N.C. The focused deterrence targets the worst criminals, while offering lower-level offenders help in turning their lives around.

Councilman Kevin F. Kelley Sr., who will also leave office Tuesday after an unsuccessful bid for mayor, called violent crime the city’s Achilles’ heel under Baker and said Council grew frustrated with the mayor’s pushback against a community policing plan his legislative counterparts supported.

“You can’t blame society when things are going wrong and good police work when things are going right,” Kelley said.

If Baker has one regret leaving office, he said, it’s that he couldn’t convince several agencies and groups, which he would not name, to work together to develop a new model to address crime, as well as social, economic and educational issues in the city.

Without change, schools, prisons and social service systems will continue to be overwhelmed by high dropout rates in the city, rampant recidivism and longer lines of people needing help, Baker said.

“He had the right idea, and it’s still the right idea,” longtime friend Fred Sears said. “You just can’t solve this with more cops and gunfights at the OK Corral.”

In true Baker fashion, the mayor had no filter for critics who blame city government and police deployment for crime while refusing to address underlying issues of black-on-black crime committed by serial offenders.

“If you want to blame me for crime, fine. If that makes you feel good, well you’re an asshole in the first place. So that doesn’t matter,” Baker said.

‘I’ll kick your ass’

Blunt language was a staple of Baker’s political repertoire.

Ever since a neighborhood group tried – unsuccessfully – to cajole him into signing a “manifesto” during his days on council, Baker decided he wouldn’t be a pushover and let a “we the people” mentality bully him into decisions, he said.

“No matter how dumb, how stupid, how idiotic the circumstances are, politicians have a tendency to try to skirt around or mealymouth their way through,” Baker said. “I decided that’s the end of that. I’m not doing that.”

In the decades that followed, Baker uttered enough gripes, insults and profanities to fill a tribute video that compiled many of his favorite insults from idiot to fool, words he often reserved for members of city council. Baker famously transformed his 2011 budget address into a battle cry.

“You want to have war for 600 more days? Fine. We will have it. And you will have it beyond the 600 days when I get finished with you,” Baker told council.

Baker didn’t temper his personality during his final days in office, either.

In November 2011 – with less than a year left before his successor, Dennis P. Williams, would be elected – Baker unleashed a rant against critics of the city’s decision to support a new Riverfront hotel, whose developers eventually benefited from a $1 million letter of credit from Wilmington.

“I don’t care anymore,” Baker said. “You can’t kick me no more. I’ll kick your ass.”

Those types of remarks often elicited nervous giggles during public appearances. Baker’s strong words also became a point of humor around Wilmington, evident when Michael Purzycki, the executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation, playfully reminded Baker to watch his language with children attending the ground-breaking for an IMAX movie theater in June.

People respected Baker’s approach when he was on council, he said, but some bristled at his language when he became mayor. That didn’t matter to Baker, who believes the majority doesn’t always have to dictate how public officials act or speak.

After almost a dozen years working as Baker’s communications director, John Rago joked that he often had to start sentences with “What the mayor meant to say …” to clear up public remarks. Not everybody found Baker’s style endearing, though.

Kelley believes Baker could have been known as the city’s greatest mayor had he just stayed on script, as he did during his farewell address in November. Instead, Baker will be known for “calling people names and putting people down,” Kelley said.

“People let Baker get away with an attitude and a philosophy that was really hurting the city,” Kelley said. “That arrogance and putting people down only goes so far. People get tired of it, and people get frustrated of it.”

As caustic as he could be, Baker’s personality was part of a charm few politicians could ever claim.

He never bragged about his status when visiting his hometown in Ohio, a tidbit his mother shared during the tribute video, and he shied from the celebratory ribbon-cutting responsibilities in Wilmington.

Baker also spoke bluntly despite the potential political consequences. Rhett Ruggerio, a prominent lobbyist who worked on Baker’s three mayoral campaigns, still remembers the candidate talking about decriminalizing some drugs during his first mayoral run.”I almost fell off my chair,” Ruggerio said.

At times, Montgomery said he wished Baker would have been more reserved. While the mayor’s bombastic persona may color his legacy, Montgomery said Baker is a complex man and a savvy politician.

“He’s much more multifaceted than just the caricature of Jim Baker,” Montgomery said. “The caricature of Jim Baker doesn’t do him justice as a person.”

Impressive resume

Now chairman of the Wilmington Economic and Financial Advisory Council, Sears ran against Baker in a three-way race for city council in 1984. He joked Baker owes his political career in part to Sears’ refusal to drop out of the contest and avoid a split vote.

That election propelled Baker toward the mayor’s office. Once there, he built an impressive resume that included establishing a rainy day reserve fund, earning an all-time high AA bond rating and instituting a plan to stabilize the water/sewer fund.

“You look back on all of our mayors, there aren’t many that could have done a better job,” Sears said.

The list of accomplishments was long enough to fill a 21-page report in 2011, two years before the end of Baker’s third term.

While Baker worked to find new revenue sources from the state, he also instituted an aggressive “Plan for Change” to collect unpaid parking tickets, wage taxes and other fees owed to the city.

Though the aggressive approach prompted some businesses to threaten to leave the city, more than $100 million has been collected.

Baker also instituted a vacant-property registration program that has become the model for other municipalities and instituted greening initiatives that include a $36 million biosolids facility. .

Much of Baker’s legacy hinges upon the redevelopment of the Christina River waterfront, a formerly blighted swath of industrial wasteland once home to the shipbuilding industry. Now, as the city and state have worked with developers, apartment complexes, restaurants and attractions like the movie theater, sit by the river.

Baker envisioned transforming the Riverfront when he was a councilman in the 1970s, said Joe DiPinto, the city’s economic development director.

When DiPinto was a councilman with Baker, he remembers his friend taking him on a walk along the Christina River.

“He said this is the future, this is an asset that needs to be utilized to bring the city back,” DiPinto said. “That was wishful thinking at the time.”

Time will tell

While Baker pushed the Riverfront development and improvements downtown, his critics accused him of neglecting city neighborhoods. Jaehn Dennis, president of the Vandever Avenue Civic Association, believes Baker ignored many community needs.

“I can’t say I was particularly happy with his policies,” Dennis said. “But he was the mayor of the city, he made those choices and he leaves behind people that feel the way they do.”

Mark Brunswick, a lobbyist who closely follows city politics, points to a long-ago photo that shows Baker with an afro and wearing a dashiki.

“I am on board with the people who say that Baker didn’t pay much attention to neighborhoods, which is to me counter to that 1972 picture of him,” Brunswick said.

Walsh believes the enormity of the Riverfront revitalization effort overshadowed many neighborhood improvements. In Baker’s time, the city and the Wilmington Housing Partnership has rehabilitated or built more than 3,000 rental and owner-occupied housing units.

Despite all his achievements, Baker’s popularity seemed to wane as his third term continued. Montgomery ran for mayor and was booed the first time he tried to defend Baker during a debate. During a public appearance together last year, Williams flatly declared “I’m not like Jim Baker.”

“Some people are really not going to miss him at all, and I guess that’s a polite way of saying it,” Walsh said.

Montgomery thinks it could take time for Baker’s full impact to be realized.

“What looks like the legacy today may not really be the legacy tomorrow,” Montgomery said. “It takes time for people to appreciate the improvements, and some people never appreciate them.”

On Friday, Markell awarded Baker The Order of the First State, the highest honor a governor can give. Markell praised Baker for his 40 years of public service and said he’s left a strong foundation for Williams.

A lover of jazz music and African-American art, Baker said he’s in no hurry to find more work after leaving office. He’s happy just to enjoy his life, he said.

When it comes to his legacy, Baker believes his long list of achievements overshadow the struggles, he said. Perhaps Baker’s record will someday drown out his own sharp words, too.

“What I’ve done is what I’ve done,” he said. “It’s a good record.”

1942: James M. Baker is born in Fostoria, Ohio.

1966: A 24-year-old Baker arrives to Wilmington from Fostoria, Ohio, as a VISTA volunteer just two years before riots broke out in the city following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

1972: Baker is elected as a district councilman, beginning a political career that would span four decades.

1984: Baker is elected council president, becoming the first African-American to lead the council. He would hold the office until 2001, making him the longest-serving council president ever.

2000: Baker is elected the city’s 54th mayor after defeating incumbent James H. Sills Jr., by 511 votes and cruising in the general election.

2002: Baker defends the use of controversial police “Jump Out” squads, which swarmed suspected drug corners. The tactic, and the decision to take photos for surveillance files, drew national attention and concern about civil liberties, and the practice was abandoned. Baker stood behind the practice, famously saying “If I say it’s constitutional, it’s constitutional.”

2002: Baker helps lure famed musician David Bromberg downtown, with the city hoping he could become a “cultural ambassador.” The move helped cement Baker’s legacy in the arts, as he compiled a record that included support of the annual Jazz Festival and opening of the independent film cinema, Theatre N at Nemours.

2003: Faced with ongoing operational deficits, Baker asks then-Gov. Ruth Ann Minner for an increased state revenue package. The state eventually agrees, and the new funds help the city weather the economic downtown.

2003: Developer The Buccini/Pollin Group teams with the Riverfront Development Corporation to develop Christina Landing, the first residential development at the Riverfront, which Baker considered key to the future of the city. The $500 million Justison Landing residential complex would eventually accompany Christina Landing, a skyline changing project.

2004: Baker wins re-election in a landslide over Republican opponent Robert Bovell.

2005: Baker establishes the Hope Commission to examine social and community issues leading to violence in some parts of the city. Even he would later acknowledge it fell short of its mission.

2006: Wilmington institutes its “Plan for Change,” which aggressively pursued unpaid parking tickets, wage taxes and other fees. The plan collected more than $100 million since its inception.

August 2008: Baker signs an executive order to reduce the city’s energy footprint by 20 percent by 2020.

2008: Facing no serious competition, Baker wins a historic third term as mayor. He is the only person to ever serve the maximum three, four-year terms.

2010: The city endures a record 27 homicides, a mark that will stain Baker’s legacy in some minds.

2011: Baker lambasts city council during his budget address. “You want to have war for 600 more days? Fine. We will have it,” Baker said in the type of remarks that came to define his blunt and sometimes caustic personality.

2012: Baker’s final year in office again marred by violence, with a shootout during a soccer tournament at Eden Park leaving three dead, including an innocent 16-year-old boy. Another spate of summer violence saw four people killed within 12 hours.

December 2012: A new IMAX movie theater opens at the Riverfront, while work continues on a hotel

December 2012: In perhaps the hallmark of Baker’s green agenda, the city breaks ground on a $36 million biosolids facility that will significantly reduce the sludge from the Hay Road Wastewater Treatment plant.

Friday, Jan. 4: Gov. Markell presents Baker with The Order of the First State, the highest honor a governor can bestow.

Monday, Jan. 7, 2013: Baker will serve his final day in office.

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