ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch's decision not to run for mayor this week elicited sighs of relief from a slew of contenders eager to stand out in a race with no clear front-runner.
Welch was the second prominent St. Petersburg politician to pass on the contest. State Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, said Monday he would not run, despite the advantage of widespread name recognition from six years on the City Council.
Their absences leave lesser-known candidates jousting for a position many consider one of the most powerful elected offices in the Tampa Bay area.
Former builder Paul Congemi, minister Sharon Russ, Amscot financial executive Deveron Gibbons, council member Jamie Bennett and real estate broker Scott Wagman have filed campaign paperwork and started accepting political contributions. Former council members Bill Foster and Kathleen Ford also said they will run, though neither has filed officially.
Kriseman and Welch said they decided to forgo a mayoral run to focus on the demands of their current elected posts.
"The coming months will bring unprecedented change to the structure, scope and mission of county government, and those changes will affect all of the citizens of Pinellas County, including my St. Petersburg neighbors," Welch wrote in an e-mail to supporters Monday night. "While the Mayor's Office is very appealing, I feel compelled to remain engaged in at the county level."
He also changed his status on the social networking Web site Facebook late Monday night to indicate he would remain on the County Commission.
Welch said he made his decision after talking with his family over the weekend.
He had hired a pollster to analyze his potential support weeks ago, but decided to cancel it Monday. He also dispelled rumors that he had promised other candidates he would not run or that financial considerations were at play. He did not rule out a future bid.
"I'm still 44," he said. "Hopefully I will be here for a while longer."
Kriseman cited no specific factors but said his family played a role. "This was a personal decision," he said. "It was not a political decision."
The narrowed field likely will make campaign efforts much smoother for the remaining contenders. Kriseman and Welch share supporters with some of the candidates and had the potential to hinder individual fundraising efforts.
"I appreciate them making their decision early on in the process," Bennett said. "Now we can whittle the list of candidates so we can know who is in and who is not."
Congemi, an advocate for the homeless and one of the least-known contenders, was more blunt about his appreciation. "Good. There are already enough people running."
The mayoral field is still far from set in stone.
Candidates could drop out, humbled by low campaign contributions or flimsy community support. Political observers also expect a rash of last-minute special interest candidates before the September primary.
"We always have some last-minute people who jump in it," said former Mayor Randy Wedding.
But few other community leaders likely to run at this point have the potential to jump immediately into first place like Welch and Kriseman might have.
Meanwhile, the candidates already have begun the courting process.
"I look forward to them examining my candidacy," said Wagman, who called Welch and Kriseman after their individual announcements. "Any endorsement from people of quality in public service is good."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.