Mayor of Two Cities
Jim Baker wants everyone in Wilmington to believe in its—in their—greatness. There’s just one small problem remaining to be solved…
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Some say he is a loner in a world of glad- handing, a man of high principles and unfiltered candor, a coalition builder who is uncomfortable in crowds. They say that in the most public of offices, he has remained aloof, that he is sometimes downright cantankerous, yet he believes the right people in the right place at the right time can transform entire cities.
“People assume that if you’re a politician, you’re a back slapper and a hand shaker,” says city councilwoman Loretta Walsh. “Jim Baker could care less about that. In his mind, I don’t believe he sees color, wealth, influence or family connections. He simply sees the city of Wilmington.”
Listening to Baker speak as he stands at the window, it is evident a part of him would like to place sections of Wilmington into an America that used to be, the one he was born into in Fostoria, Ohio, in 1942. That America was a black-and-white photograph of neighbors caring for neighbors, an America of self-sufficiency that solved its problems through hard work.
It was in Fostoria where Baker, at the age of three, heard his first political voice, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on the radio, as well as the Cisco Kid, Jack Benny, and the Reverend C.L. Franklin from Detroit. Fostoria was where he first read about Langston Hughes and Frederick Douglass, where he first heard Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie and the big band sounds his mother Althea, a singer, gave him.
“Jim’s formative years were spent surrounded by strong women, and you see their influence,” Walsh says. “Instead of saying, ‘We can’t do that,’ he comes up with solutions.”
When Baker was a child, his father, John Franklin, a union organizer, died in a car accident. Baker and his brother John Franklin Jr. moved in with their grandmother, Daisy Newman, who held firmly to the belief that the truest form of learning happened outside a classroom. Though her formal education ended in the fourth grade, she shuttled the boys to church meetings, to NAACP rallies and to Cleveland, via train, where Baker would watch white-gloved Pullman porters walk by him with silver trays of food. Newman took the boys aboard ships in Lake Erie. She paid a dollar a week for their piano lessons. She pulled books from bric-a-brac shelves and yard sales and made them their own libraries. Baker’s other grandmother, Emma Baker, not only asked Jim to read passages from the Bible, but to question it.
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