Kenmore mayor steers a city — and Uber most mornings

Charismatic Mayor David Baker uses his side gig as an Uber driver to find out what people care about and to let his mind roam.

Kenmore Mayor David Baker, an Uber driver, checks his phone while seated in his parked car.

Kenmore Mayor David Baker, who has a side gig as an Uber driver, checks his phone while seated in his parked car.

“You get very good at knowing where the bathrooms are. You know which grocery stores are open all night long. You get to know people. You also learn where the good restaurants are. I love buffets."

Kenmore’s Mayor, David Baker, 73, muses as he drives through the dark, deserted streets of Seattle waiting for the Uber app on his phone to light up. It’s 5 a.m. and he’s already been at this for 45 minutes.

As he drives, he says it’s the little things that consume his thoughts, foundations for the bigger issues he seeks to solve later in the day. Uber allows him to meet various people, seek their thoughts on the Puget Sound region and, in turn, inform his decisions within the community.

He and his city, Baker says, live within their means while aiming high toward a bright future that is looking even brighter these days.

Mayor David Baker sits in his Prius in the parking lot of Kenmore City Hall with an Uber light illuminated on his dashboard.
“Now we wait.” Mayor David Baker sits in his Prius in the parking lot of Kenmore City Hall.

4:15 a.m.  “Now we wait.”

From Kenmore’s City Hall, Baker drives to Starbucks in Lake Forest Park and waits for the Uber app on his phone to light up. It’s dark. Silence looms over the north Seattle suburbs.

From outside the mayor’s car, there’s no mistaking David. His name radiates in neon under the Uber logo on his windshield.

The mayor has big visions for his sleepy bedroom community and he’s starting to tick things off his list. For starters, he’d like to see Kenmore, located at the top of Lake Washington, become a destination rather than a toll-free, pass-through zone that connects commuters on the I-405 eastside to Seattle and the I-5 westside.

“We want bus rapid transit on the Route 522 corridor,” Baker says. “We want parking garages. We want a light rail study in the future. We want light rail here to go around the lake.”

Kenmore Mayor David Baker stands on the dock of Kenmore Air Harbor on the northern tip of Lake Washington.
“Kenmore is the crown of Lake Washington,” says Kenmore Mayor David Baker on the dock of Kenmore Air Harbor.

The city, sandwiched in north King County between Bothell and Lake Forest Park, has typically been a destination only for its quiet residents coming home to their suburban lifestyle, manicured yards, good schools, low crime and plethora of parks.

Wrapping around the northeast corner of Lake Washington including the confluence of the Sammamish River, the city is cut off from the lake by the Burke Gilman Trail and the major arterial Highway 522 to the north. On the other side of the freeway lies lakefront access — from St. Edwards State Park to Inglewood Golf Course and the 51-acre Bastyr University.

There is no downtown core, but that is changing.

The long-stalled Lakepointe development project, which aims to transform 50 acres of waterfront property into commercial and residential use, has finally found new developers.

For the 10 years he’s been mayor – half of Kenmore’s history since being incorporated in 1998 – the city has laid plans for a downtown center, built a new city hall, a fire station, a community building and a new library. Condos are going up along the Bothell-Everett Highway, increasing density.

Baker is a crusader for Sound Transit 3, healthy lifestyles for seniors and business opportunities in Kenmore, including well-known Kenmore family-owned businesses like Kenmore Air Harbor, home of the largest seaplane fleet in the country, Kenmore Camera  and Ostrom’s Drug and Gift store, which was founded in 1961.

He is also president of the Sound Cities Association, which represents all 38 cities in King County, minus Seattle. In all, Baker estimates he serves on the boards of 17 committees. “And the result is Kenmore gets to be known,” he says.

As if none of that is enough, Baker spends the rest of his rather nonexistent spare time driving for Uber and Lyft. 

     
Kenmore Mayor David Baker drives a passenger to SeaTac Airport in the early hours of the morning on Interstate 5.

Kenmore Mayor David Baker drives a passenger to SeaTac Airport in the early hours of the morning on Interstate 5.

Kenmore Mayor David Baker drives a passenger to SeaTac Airport in the early hours of the morning on Interstate 5.

After waiting almost an hour, a ride comes in from the Magnuson neighborhood: John Stokamp, whose brother and sister live in Kenmore. They head to the airport in peaceful silence. It’s much too early for small talk.

Baker has been driving for Uber for a little over a year. He begins at 4:15 a.m. and goes until 10 or 11 a.m., six days a week. Only after that does his day as mayor begin.

He drives for the ride-sharing companies “to put food on the table” for him and his wife. His just-under $800 per month paycheck as mayor doesn’t cut it. He likes the extra cash driving provides so he can enjoy the things like travel and the freedom contracting work gives him to take control of his day.

     
I don’t like talking about my age because people just think I’m a doddering old man and I’m not. I’ve got a Ph.D in neuroanatomy. I’ve formed businesses and international businesses, but at my age, who is gonna hire me?
— Kenmore Mayor David Baker

He zooms to the airport, the artificial lights of the freeway whizzing by. He maneuvers the car like a pilot gliding through the skies as though second nature.

Baker is unstoppable, but he realizes that’s not the perception afforded a 73-year-old.

“I don’t like talking about my age because people just think I’m a doddering old man and I’m not,” he says. “I’ve got a Ph.D in neuroanatomy. I’ve formed businesses and international businesses, but at my age, who is gonna hire me?”

“So this. And I love doing this! I get out and meet people and talk to those who don’t live in the city and find out what their thoughts are on different things like Sound Transit 3, like our president, what Seattle is doing next. So it gives me a pretty rounded idea of what the public is thinking and helps me try to make decisions on different things.”

Mayor David Baker drops off an Uber passenger, John Stokamp, at SeaTac Airport.
Mayor David Baker drops off passenger, John Stokamp, at SeaTac Airport.

6:01 a.m. Baker drops off his ride at the airport and $29.58 goes into his pocket, according to his Uber app.


As Kenmore’s mayor, he’s got a lot more money to play around with — some of which he has helped raise.

He estimates he puts in about 30 hours a week raising money for the city, seeking business opportunities and raising awareness about Kenmore. “It’s almost a full-time job,” he says. “But you get the benefits of what you put in.”

“We’ve gotten a lot of things. Almost $60 million in grants in about the last six-years. For a little city of 23,000, that’s pretty good.”

The money has been used for all sorts of improvements, and Baker says the city has paid cash, incurring little debt until just last year when the public voted for a bond issue called “Walkways and Waterways” to improve access to Lake Washington. “It’s the only bond issue we’ve ever taken out,” he says.

     
Kenmore Mayor David Baker stands next to his car after he stops at a portable restroom in a cell phone lot outside SeaTac Airport.

Kenmore Mayor David Baker makes a pitstop in a cell phone lot outside SeaTac Airport.

Kenmore Mayor David Baker makes a pitstop in a cell phone lot outside SeaTac Airport.

6:44 a.m. The mayor picks up a passenger in Newcastle named Bruce Wilson, a brand manager and professional water skier for Radar Skis, based out of Woodinville.


6:59 a.m. 15 minutes later, Ka’ching. Another $15.50 in Baker’s pocket.


Baker just started driving for Uber and Lyft last year and drives at a good clip, changing lanes with ease, utilizing the HOV lanes when possible. 

He enjoys the independence and extra cash the driver position gives him, but also the closeness it brings him to his constituents.

Driving in the mornings is what he prefers because he doesn’t like picking up drunks: “I don’t want them throwing up in my car.” 

Marijuana users, on the other hand, are fine by him. As a Lyft driver, he has coupons to distribute for Uncle Ike’s. “I’ve got people getting off the plane and the first thing they want is marijuana. I’ve picked people up at a hotel to take them to the pot shop and back. And these are older people,” He laughs. “It’s like they come there for the weekend to do their pot smoking.”

Kenmore Mayor David Baker drives his Prius to SeaTac Airport along Interstate 5 in the early hours of the day.
Kenmore Mayor David Baker drives a passenger to SeaTac Airport along Interstate 5 in the early hours of the day.

Soon his 2014 blue Prius with the illuminated “David” sign arrives at a cell phone lot near the airport, empty except for a couple of lonely Honey-Bucket port-a-potties in a far corner. More business to attend to, but more of a personal pitstop.

Then he heads north looking for more customers.

“It was a scary proposition,” he says of leasing a new Prius and taking on debt and $150 a week in payments. But his first day on the job, he says, he made almost $200 in eight hours. The Prius suits him because it’s very economical, getting 45 miles per gallon, and allows him to meet the airport’s fuel-efficiency standard for picking up passengers.

7:20 a.m. It’s getting lighter now. He picks up a passenger — a nurse — and heads toward Seattle Children’s Hospital. 

“I was an RN too,” Baker tells the man. Baker tells him about his time teaching at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine and at Iowa State, where he did his dissertation on “blood pressure regulatory mechanism in the brain stem of the rat.”


He later went on to form R & M Biometrics, now called BioQuant, with a partner in 1987, a bioresearch company based out of Nashville. There, he researched massive dosages of Vitamin C on guinea pigs.

     
I always thought I could do a better job than those idiots in office...and now I’m one of those idiots.
— Kenmore Mayor David Baker

He came from more humble beginnings. Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, he says he was beat up a lot and flunked out of high school after the ninth grade. “I do not have a high school diploma to this day,” Baker says.

He ended up attending junior college, before heading to the bigger universities and beginning his biometrics company.


In 1999, he went a different way, forming Vision Systems Engineering, a circuit design and machine vision corporation where he still does consulting. Today, he also manages an internet-based cell phone service company called PhoneUnlockedNow that specializes in cell phone repair and accessories. 

He got involved in politics in 2004 because he thought he could do some good for the city of Kenmore, where he lives.

“I always thought I could do a better job than those idiots in office,” Baker says. “And now I’m one of those idiots.”

7:52 a.m. Baker arrives where we started in the Magnuson neighborhood and rakes in another $22. 


8:00 a.m. The Uber app comes to life almost immediately with a new passenger in Ravenna. He picks him up and heads off to West Seattle, despite I-5 being plugged with traffic.

Like Seattle, the city of Kenmore is growing. Located at the top of Lake Washington the population was 16,500 in 2004 and increased to 23,200 in 2016. “It’s a convenient place [for a couple], where one spouse works in Seattle and the other in Bellevue or Redmond,” says the mayor.


Kenmore is a city that was previously known as a drive-by suburb but is transforming itself with downtown redevelopment.

The city government in Kenmore works a little differently from Seattle. Baker was elected by the public for a four-year city council position in 2004. The council elects one of the members to be a mayor for two-year terms, and chose Baker in 2007.

This type of council-manager form of government is common. Baker estimates around 90 percent of cities here are set up this way.

Baker has been elected to serve five of these two-year terms, and Kenmore City Councilmember Milton Curtis says it’s because of Baker’s interest in people.

“It’s important for us to talk to other people, whether local, county, state, national and David loves to learn and will volunteer for almost anything, so because he is so interested in everything and talks to people about their problems, he benefits our city,” Curtis says.

Kenmore City Manager Robert G. Karlinsey runs the show day to day, and the City Council makes major city decisions. Baker says he is more focused on fundraising, finding grant opportunities, getting the Kenmore name out into the community and welcoming new business opportunities.

“I’m the face of the community,” Baker says.

Mayor David Baker meets with Rep. Cindy Ryu and others from the King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services, which he chairs.
Kenmore Mayor David Baker meets with state Rep. Cindy Ryu and others from the King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services, which he chairs.

8:26 a.m. He arrives in West Seattle, and his Uber app says he made $90.62. Not bad for one morning.


But it’s time to shift gears, and he shuts the driver app off. He’s due at state Rep. Cindy Ryu’s office in Shoreline for a meeting with the King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services, one of the many boards he chairs. It’s pedal to the metal time, and the mayor deftly navigates his Prius back to Shoreline through traffic.


On his way, Baker works the phone through a hands-free device. First taking care of business by going over an agenda item for the Board of Health with an analyst. Then, perhaps more importantly, a call arranging date night with his wife, Sheri, at a nice restaurant on Capitol Hill.


At Ryu’s office, Baker and the group discuss the rising population of seniors in Washington state and are actively pursuing policies to help them. “Seniors can’t eat. They can’t see. And they can’t hear,” he says.

Their group is talking to Ryu in an attempt to earn her support for the Veterans and Human Services Levy, which is on the ballot in November. The levy would help seniors stay in their homes and provide services to keep them out of poverty. “It’s so much cheaper to keep someone in their homes rather than put them in a nursing home, even if you have to hire an aide,“ Baker says.

10:25 a.m. So and Baker excuses himself. He’s got to run to a meeting at Uber in downtown Seattle, then onward to Tukwila for another meeting, this time with state Rep. Mia Gregerson.

The next week, he attended a meeting with Gov. Jay Inslee, followed by a conference in San Diego for National League of Cities University. The week after, he held a meeting with King County Executive Dow Constantine and other legislators throughout the week.

“I love being involved in all these things,” he says. “I’ve got a lot in life to be thankful for. I want to do something to make sure I have left a mark in this community.”

Driving for ride-share companies, he believes will help him in leaving that mark. “People are much more involved than what you would imagine and are willing to share what their feelings are.”

     
Kenmore Mayor David Baker stands next to next to a mural that depicts the city's history.

Kenmore Mayor David Baker stands next to next to a mural that depicts the city's history.

Kenmore Mayor David Baker stands next to next to a mural that depicts the city's history.

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