Delaware people: Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker calls it as he sees it
As city’s outspoken mayor serves third term, city council grows weary of his rants
By ADAM TAYLOR– The News Journal
Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker’s March 24 budget speech to council was supposed to double as a dignified State of the City address.
Aides hoped he would stick to the script.
To no one’s surprise, that didn’t happen.
As has happened often during his 10 years as mayor and 28 years on city council, Baker took the occasion to rip into city council for daring to question his budget proposal.
“… I’ll fight you tooth and nail if you want. Doesn’t matter to me. Either you make peace, or you don’t,” Baker said. “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.”
He went on to make sarcastic comments about wanting to get home quickly. He even criticized his own staff.
“What I want to do is just tell you where we are financially and what’s gonna happen, and from that point on, I’m getting out of here,” he said.
His words about his staff were more caustic.
“They panic because they don’t want me to say things that I honestly feel,” he said. “I can’t do that.”
Baker, the city’s first three-term mayor, didn’t have serious re-election opponents and is beloved by thousands and grudgingly respected by his enemies. He has overseen the revitalization of the Christina Riverfront, increased the police force to its largest size ever, reduced vacant houses by 20 percent and negotiated a revenue-sharing package with the state government that brings in millions each year.
But his legacy is threatened to be dominated by his caustic rhetoric, his temper and his personal attacks. He may forever be remembered as the mayor who routinely called members of City Council “idiots” whenever they disagreed with him.
Council members who are used to being Baker’s targets were infuriated by his behavior in council chambers — their own house.
While some chalked it up to “Jim Baker being Jim Baker,” others said his hostility has risen to unprecedented levels.
Baker only lashes out to those who don’t have their facts straight, the mayor’s defenders say. And his tough-guy exterior masks a sensitive man whose feelings are easily hurt, they say. Another notion is that Baker is getting tired of the job.
No matter if one or all of these statements are accurate, one thing is clear — many are tiring of Baker.
“You can only take being called an ‘idiot’ so many times,” Councilman Steve Martelli said. “He’s not an unlikable guy, but he can say and do things that make it hard to like him if you don’t know him.”
Council responded to Baker’s budget address by passing its own spending plan Thursday, a first in recent city history. Baker isn’t happy and plans on vetoing the council’s version.
Martelli said Baker got what he asked for when he drew the line in the sand on March 24.
“He comes to the budget address and acts the way he does and then is surprised when the council responds the way we did?” Martelli said. “I mean, what? Is he serious?”
Councilman Bud Freel listened to Baker’s speech with a sense of irony because Baker, as city council president, routinely lost his temper with former Mayor Dan Frawley on the ninth floor of the Louis L. Redding City-County Building. Freel was an assistant to Frawley from 1985 to 1992.
“He always came into the mayor’s office yelling and screaming,” Freel said. “You’d kind of let him vent and then you got back onto the subject.”
Even Freel thought the March 24 speech was different. He thought it signaled that Baker is counting the days until he’s out of office.
“I think he’s getting worse. With his personality, the tough economic times make him yell even more. There also was an attitude in his budget address that ‘I’m out of here in 18 months, so the heck with it.’ That’s frustrating, because as elected officials, we have a commitment to the people right up until the last day we serve.”
Councilman Kevin Kelley said he met Baker “when he had dark hair and a big afro” in the early ’80s, when the two were Community Action workers. Kelley supported Baker in the 2000 election against incumbent Mayor Jim Sills. But Kelley and Baker have spent much of the past decade battling over how the city is policed.
Baker came into office in 2001 — five years after Wilmington hit a then-record high of 21 homicides — with a goal of cutting crime by 80 percent in eight years. He eventually conceded he didn’t have enough police to achieve that. Last year was the city’s deadliest ever, with 27 homicides.
Crime has become one of the most talked-about issues in Baker’s tenure. While he touts having hired 50 officers and increasing the force to its largest size ever, many residents have been disappointed with how they’ve been used.
Kelley led the fight for community-policing officers who patrol certain geographical districts, but Baker has emphasized citywide motorized patrols.
“He was elected because of his no-nonsense approach, but that style has worn on people,” Kelley said. “And Jim Baker is not going to change in the next 18 months. It’s like a bad relationship, but you can’t get a divorce. The only thing that is going to save us is term limits.”
“If I say it’s constitutional, it’s constitutional.”
Theo Gregory, a former city councilman, went toe-to-toe with Baker on a split screen of an MSNBC news show in 2002. Wilmington Police Department’s jump-out squads had made national news for taking pictures of people who hadn’t been arrested to include in databases to investigate future crimes.
The tactical team would descend on drug corners and make arrests. But the practice of photographing those who weren’t charged and keeping files on them caused a stir. Baker said the practice was legal, which led to his infamous comment to The News Journal: “If I say it’s constitutional, it’s constitutional.”
The photos stopped before the end of the year.
Gregory disagreed with the practice and challenged the mayor, a practice he said is only scary if you don’t know Baker.
“It was not a big deal,” he said. “We were sitting together drinking tonic water in the studio before the show, laughing and joking. Then we went at it on camera.”
Gregory said Baker doesn’t mind people who disagree with him. It’s the lack of a defensible argument that he detests.
“Jim has an appreciation for people who fight back with facts and articulate their position well,” Gregory said. “If you do that, he’s very respectful. If you don’t know how to do that, he will run over you.”
Councilman Mike Brown knows that as well as anyone. Brown was Baker’s driver during his 2000 mayoral campaign. Brown later became a councilman, and, while friends, the two have sparred about Police Chief Michael Szczerba’s performance and other issues.
Brown, the lone Republican on council, supported Christine O’Donnell in last year’s U.S. Senate election, which angered Baker.
But politics weren’t supposed to be on the agenda of an October press conference at West End Neighborhood House. The federal government was announcing a $2.9 million grant for a program to combat teen pregnancy. When he saw Baker arrive, Brown knew the mayor was going to go off script and lambast him for supporting O’Donnell.
So Brown left.
“I knew what he was going to do, so I decided to skip it.”
At Brown’s request, Baker went out to breakfast with him the next day, and Brown confronted Baker. Baker said it wasn’t personal and that he was really bashing tea party Republicans.
“I told him he was showing off for [now-Sen.] Chris Coons,” Brown said. “The mayor said he would have torn me up had I stayed. I laughed and said I was glad I left. He laughed. We finished eating, had a cup of coffee and drove away friends.”
“People don’t understand how much he loves the city.”
The Rev. Derrick Johnson, pastor of Joshua Harvest Church, calls Baker “a wounded healer.”
“When he doesn’t feel love from the community or from members of council, he gets very defensive, then goes on the attack,” Johnson said. “He’s quick to make you feel dumb. It’s easy to be offended if you don’t understand him. What he’s really doing is striking back because he thinks people don’t understand how much he loves the city and that he thinks his solution is the right one.”
Baker played a pivotal role in Johnson’s transformation. Johnson was in his prison blues in 1982, serving time in Smyrna for killing a man in a motel parking lot during an argument over a woman. Johnson was the head of a group called Visions, which consisted of lifers and violent inmates.
Baker spoke to the group, then later wrote Johnson — who was angry, aggressive and defiant — a letter telling him he needed to change his attitudes.
“It was a profound letter that caused me to re-evaluate my behavior in prison and changed the direction of my future life,” Johnson said
ohnson was pardoned by Gov. Jack Markell and is now seeking the mayor’s office. He said he’s saddened by the arc of Baker’s mayoral career.
“I’m disappointed that his legacy will not include having done some of the things I know he cares about, such as bringing the community up and bringing crime down,” Johnson said.
“I wouldn’t have called you stupid if you weren’t stupid.”
Baker said that he doesn’t think he’s any more abrasive than he’s ever been, nor does he think he’s tired of the job.
“What I do sort of get tired of are the same nonsensical arguments over things like the police department,” Baker said. “Ten years of yakety-yak about shootings and how the police will be deployed instead of talking about the social ills that cause them. It’s madness.”
He said he never tries to be insulting. He also said he’s only finishing what others start.
“I don’t try to hurt people,” he said. “I want them to understand they can’t say outrageous things to me and expect me to do nothing about it.”
He said he criticizes council because he thinks the members are overstepping their bounds like no other council he’s seen.
“It’s a young council that’s finding its way,” Baker said. “I don’t think I said anything outrageous at the budget address. But when you whack at them, sure, they get upset. Why wouldn’t they get upset? They think they’re right. Trouble is, they’re wrong.”
Baker objects to the notion that council chambers is the legislative body’s home field.
“It’s not their house; it’s the people’s house,” he said. “I have the right to express myself there.”
He did say that he is genuinely confused when others tell him he shouldn’t call people “stupid” or “idiots.”
“I don’t get that,” he said. “I wouldn’t have called you stupid if you weren’t stupid. What am I supposed to do when someone says something stupid to me? Say I understand their point of view and promise to take it under consideration?”
He said he feels as though he can’t win.
“Where are all the people who say they want politicians to be open, honest and talk in a straightforward, no-B.S. kind of way?” he said.
Even his biggest achievements are criticized by council members and residents, Baker said.
For example, Baker’s Plan for Change has resulted in $80 million in money from aggressive collections of delinquent wage taxes, parking tickets and other fees. The city also has stepped up its booting of vehicles and takes people to sheriff sales for overdue bills of as little as $2,000.
Baker said the program has averted massive tax increases for residents — and saved the city’s reserve funds. New Castle County Councilman Jea Street, a fan of Baker’s, calls the practice unconscionable.
“They’re balancing the budget on the backs of poor people who are already struggling in a bad economy,” Street said.
In Baker’s time as mayor, the Christina Riverfront has gone from an industrial wasteland into an attraction that has seen $1 billion in construction, with 2 million square feet of office space and 4,000 daily employees. Instead of contaminated lots from old tanneries and shipbuilding sites, there is a wildlife refuge, a children’s museum and the home of a future IMAX theater.
Baker listed a host of social ills still facing Wilmington and other cities. The resulting urban crisis upsets him, and he said he doesn’t understand why others aren’t as troubled.
“It’s not my problem if you’re not upset,” he said. “I don’t think I’m insane. I think there’s something wrong with them.”
On Market Street, the opening of the Queen Theatre has brought the promise of the long-sought goal of changing downtown from a place that bustles during the workday and becomes a ghost town after 5 p.m. and on weekends.
Yet many people said neighborhoods have been ignored in the process.
East Side funeral director Beverly Bell said she has become so disillusioned, she withdrew from her participation in the Blueprint Communities program, which gave citizens resources for creating long-term comprehensive plans for their blocks.
“I’m very disenchanted that the mayor has conducted business as usual and focused on downtown and the riverfront,” Bell said. “I don’t think the East Side and other neighborhoods are being viewed as part of the tapestry that makes a total city.”
These issues have become more important because of the city’s changing demographics.
Wilmington’s population has hovered around 70,000 for the past several decades. It climbed from 70,195 in 1980 to 72,579 in 2000, a gain of about 3.4 percent.
But the 2000s saw a reversal of that trend. The city’s population dropped back to 70,851 in the 2010 census.
The census tract that covers downtown Wilmington saw its population increase by about 34 percent. Browntown grew by almost 17 percent, and the area south of the Christina River — which includes the new homes at Christina Landing — saw growth of about 4 percent.
Population generally declined — from 2 percent to 1.5 percent — north of Brandywine Creek and in the Highlands and Trolley Square neighborhoods.
“He’s a lame duck.”
Rhett Ruggerio is unapologetic about his bias toward Baker. The mayor is his favorite politician, and the lobbyist represents the city in Dover.The allegiance began when Ruggerio was around 10. His dad, Nick, had a contracting business in Baker’s district. When Baker would show up on the block, it was like a celebrity had come to town.“People would surround him, and he would hold court, telling stories,” Ruggerio said. “He was larger than life. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I looked up to him.”Ruggerio attributes Baker’s current public-relation troubles to being in office for three terms.“He’s a lame duck — and what comes with that, is you no longer have to respond to certain political constituency groups,” Ruggerio said. “I just think that comes with the territory.The city issues are gritty, and everything has a shelf life. He’s been dealing with hard-core issues for 11 years, and there’s potential for fatigue. I think he might be tired.”