ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch will seek re-election in 2012 instead of pursuing his longtime ambition, mayor of St. Petersburg.
Welch, who was atop most lists of mayoral contenders, shared his decision with Mayor Bill Foster over breakfast Monday morning at a Bob Evans restaurant.
Welch got an Egg Beaters omelette and an endorsement from the mayor.
Foster got eggs, grits, bacon — and a serious obstacle removed if he decides to seek re-election in 2013. It was an early gift, considering the mayor is finishing his first year.
"The mayor's doing a good job, and I told him that," Welch said. "I think there are a lot of areas that we can work more collaboratively."
Welch said the cordial meeting stopped short of his endorsing Foster because others may enter the race.
Welch cited his goals to improve the county's EMS system, homeless initiatives and transportation issues like light rail as reasons to stay — and as issues on which to work with Foster. Welch, 46, also is taking a greater role in the accounting business founded by his father David Welch, a former St. Petersburg City Council member.
Foster downplayed the meeting, declining to give many specifics. "Don't read too much into that," Foster said. "I haven't even decided if I'm going to run. Why would he endorse me? Dang, the way I've been going, I could have my first heart attack."
Welch, a 10-year commissioner, faces the headwind brought by a Republican Party that recently ousted three Democratic incumbents in November as both political parties take greater roles in city elections.
He also faces a potential challenge from Democrat Maria Scruggs-Weston, who lost a 2005 race for City Council, a 2004 commission race and a 2001 mayor bid.
Welch's announcement lets other potential mayoral contenders know he won't be in the race and serves as an early re-election notice for his 2012 bid.
But his timing baffled other politicians. St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse, himself a former mayoral candidate and also mentioned as a future one, called Welch's announcement "stunning."
"I don't particularly understand it because I don't know how the world will look in three years," said Nurse.
Scruggs-Weston, 53, a corrections supervisor in Orange County, said she also will run for Pinellas Democratic Party chair against businessman Mark Hanisee. Scruggs-Weston said she will make a decision on the commission race based on how the chairmanship vote goes.
State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, recently questioned her motives to run against Welch, a friend. Nurse also said he would be "flabbergasted" if she was a serious challenge.
She wasted no time lobbing jabs at Welch, saying he leveraged perks from being a commissioner such as his job as assistant vice president of St. Petersburg College and his wife Donna's work for an agency under the Juvenile Welfare Board while he was a board member.
"My question is, if one of the things you're able to parlay is a nice job for you and some grant money for your wife, how have you been able to leverage your position to help the residents of District 7?" she asked.
Welch joined the college in 2006, and earned $90,000 in 2009, though he recently said he cut his hours and was set to earn $57,000 this year.
He defended his performance, and pointed to articles showing Scruggs-Weston has been fired from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the St. Petersburg Housing Authority.
"I would be happy to compare work histories with Ms. Scruggs-Weston," Welch said.