There was a time, back in the 1970s and '80s, when the First Coast Tiger Bay Club (then called the Bull Snort Forum, after a fictitious Georgia town conceived by a Florida Times-Union political columnist) was nothing if not a local powerhouse. Its monthly luncheons — occasions for local hoi polloi to listen to debates and speeches by presidential candidates, U.S. senators and other big-shot politicos — saw crowds of 300, and the group's membership rolls hovered around 150, movers and shakers all. Speakers' responses to members' prodding questions often became fodder for the next morning's headlines.
But then, in the '90s, attendance began to drop — and continued to drop and then stagnated, even as Tiger Bay paid top dollar to lure high-profile speakers — and alongside its decline so too fell the Tiger Bay Club's clout.
Into this void steps the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Stephen Baker, a recently retired political scientist from Jacksonville University who very much exemplifies the "distinguished professor" image. His attention to detail is reflected in his selection of fashionable shoes and tailored blazers that set off his ice-blue eyes, close-cropped silver-gray hair and adroitly manicured moustache.
Baker has spent the better part of his 68 years trying to understand political dysfunction. When he takes over as Tiger Bay's president in January, he'll become the first academic to head the group in its four-decade history. His mission is to restore the club's primacy — to bring First Coast Tiger Bay a little closer to its heyday.
And even if you're not likely to fork over $100 to become a member anytime soon, Baker contends that it's in your interest — in the interest of democracy itself — that he succeed. Organizations like his are needed now more than ever, to flush out "real political dialogue that is necessary for democracy to work."
The media, he says, "have become more news aggregators of simplified stories instead of sources of investigative journalism. The media are supposed to be the information conduit between people and their government while other citizen organizations act as forums for debate. Unfortunately, that dialogue is sorely missing at all levels of government in America. The two agents through which this dialogue occurs — the media and voluntary civic organizations — have deteriorated in recent years."
As with many civic groups, Baker says, Tiger Bay's dwindled numbers are a result of changing times, part and parcel of a larger societal shift toward less in-person social interaction. The key to turning the ship around, he believes, is more creative programming — programming that challenges its members' beliefs and preconceptions, that makes them think about issues more deeply. The group has already seen some success on that score. Recent forums on the real costs of comprehensive immigration reform and the unexpected consequences of prison policies boosted attendance. On Jan. 17 — Baker's first monthly luncheon as Tiger Bay president — State Attorney Angela Corey and Bernie De La Rionda, the lead prosecutor of the George Zimmerman case, will be on hand to discuss their failed prosecution of Trayvon Martin's shooter.
"I am betting that our members will find some programs disturbing but rewarding," Baker says. "These types of programs can … also push the media to perform their expected function in a democracy. Real and informed political debate is contagious."
And this, he believes, is ultimately his group's role, to serve as a corrective both to the pervasive shallowness of local political reporting and the excessiveness of political gamesmanship.
"Tiger Bay serves as an alternative to what passes for political dialogue in Jacksonville, where the media frequently just reports market-tested talking points of both sides and then think the media's job is done," Baker says. "Unfortunately, neither side actually engages the other and often posits ridiculous, though unchallenged, assertions. By bringing contesting sides together over a shared meal — an ancient and often effective method of getting beyond the normal shouting matches — we can really involve people in dialogue."