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In the Mayor’s Office

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James M. Baker has focused on economic stability, finding new sources of funding for economic development, housing improvements, environmental initiatives, rich cultural programs and more.  
Photograph by Thom Thompson www.thomthompson.com

 

He speaks his mind, sometimes shoots from the hip, and always comes from the heart. The bluntness of his comments can make some people chuckle while others wince. But few can argue his decisions. He’s been working to shape public policy in Wilmington for nearly 40 years.

In his second term as mayor, James M. Baker looks across the city he loves and sees people: people with fresh ideas, people in need, people in a position to help and people working to make things better.

The experiences that shaped his vision started long ago.

Born in 1942, Baker lived in the farming and industrial town of Fostoria, Ohio. Farmers still pushed their plows behind horses and families hung cards on their porches to let the ice man know what size block they needed. All-day ball games were typical. “It was like Mayberry,” says Baker, “and I’m glad I grew up that way.

“I grew up in a mixed neighborhood of Mexicans, African Americans and whites, but I never thought the fact that we were different meant anything,” Baker says. “We helped each other, but not as a handout.” Instead, people shared what they had and protected the dignity of others by saying, “My kids outgrew these clothes, so maybe yours can use them,” or, “I cooked too much food and don’t want it to go to waste,” Baker recalls.

It wasn’t until he joined the U.S. Air Force and went to Amarillo, Texas, that he was confronted with discrimination.

“About 10 of us, white and black, went to a bar together and sat down at a couple of tables, but the waitress kept walking around us,” he says. “Finally someone asked for some service, and she replied, as she pointed at us one by one around the table, ‘I can serve you and I can serve you. I can’t serve you.'”

The friends had only two options if they were to share a cold beer: “The Heights, a black section of town where they had some money, or The Flats, an area of abject poverty without street lights or indoor toilets.” There was also nowhere to watch a movie without being separated, so they stayed on base and watched movies.

“Two things really stood out to me: the segregation and the inequality. It was so insidious and stupid to treat people that way,” says Baker. “I grew up thinking people were just people.”

As a young adult in the early ’60s, he was deeply affected by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “Between ‘I Have a Dream’ and Kennedy’s speech, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you,’ I did feel that things really needed to change.”

He left the Air Force in 1966, then joined VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). He completed his training in New York, where he saw casualties from a different kind of war—gang fights—as he dealt with the families and victims in the Bronx hospital where he worked.

His next assignment was in Wilmington, working with the West Side Conservation Association in the West Center City and Hilltop neighborhoods. Baker was 24. Wilmington “was a pretty town, even though I thought they needed to do more with it,” he says. The city reminded him of Europe, “with its climbing hills,” and he’s been known to say, “Wilmington can become the Little Paris of the United States.”

Elected to city council in 1972, then elected its first African-American president in 1984, Baker went on to become the 54th mayor of Wilmington, in 2001.

He has focused on restoring financial stability. Bill Montgomery, chief of staff, recalls how the mayor “was incredibly effective in lobbying the state to get new and varied revenue sources. If you don’t have sufficient revenue, you can’t get other things done.”

The administration is now using those funds to encourage economic development, improve the housing stock and neighborhoods, improve the sustainability of the city through environmental measures, and continue to develop a strong and diverse portfolio of arts and cultural offerings.

JFK’s words, “United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures” could be an underlying theme of Baker’s agenda. “People can sit back and beat up on each other in meetings, or we can take charge and do something,” he says, citing the grass roots efforts of Greater Brandywine Village revitalization and Little Italy.

“What you see now are diversified projects, not being done by the city per se, but by the private sector: private-sector housing, private-sector developments in downtown with some city help, the Riverfront with the state, city, county and private sector all working together.”

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