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District 6: Youth vs. experience

Even when he leaves telephone messages, City Council member David Welch doesn't stray for a moment from the Campaign Theme.

"Sorry I missed you," Welch says in a recent phone-mail message, "I was in Tallahassee all day trying to get some funds for this area."

In campaign speeches, council meetings, hallway conversations and even on phone recordings, that's the message the incumbent is leaving all over town: He's the experienced one, the elder statesman who also happens to know how to work the system and bring home the groceries.

Problem is, the residents of Welch's own district weren't buying it Feb. 25, when they turned out nearly 2-to-1 to vote for Welch's opponent, Frank Peterman Jr.

The big issue in this campaign rests on age: Welch is 69. At 34, Peterman is half Welch's age. Both candidates are trying to work the issue for all it is worth.

Where Welch touts his experience and know-how, Peterman cites his youthful energy and flexibility. That there's not much difference between them on the issues didn't seem to faze the voters of District 6; they wanted a change of personnel and went for Peterman, who works locally for MCI, one of the nation's largest long-distance telecommunications service providers.

But March 25 is a different creature, indeed. The candidates emerge from the District 6 primary and must run citywide. At that level, Welch's experience _ and name recognition after 12 years on City Council and cable television _ may have the upper hand.

"I think the name recognition is out there," says Welch, who worked 27 years at the St. Petersburg Vocational Technical Institute before leaving there in 1993 as assistant director of finance and facilities. He now operates a small accounting firm in St. Petersburg. "Still, I think ultimately it depends on whether people get out the vote." In other words, the more people that turn out to vote, the more name recognition comes into play, helping Welch.

But there is a flip side to that argument, and Peterman is quick to make it: "I want voters in the other areas of the city to think "If the people of his (Peterman's) district feel that strongly to vote for him like that, then I feel comfortable voting for you too.' "

There's also a deeper question at work. Peterman got a taste of it four years ago, the first time he ran against Welch. It's popped up on several other occasions, as well.

Oddly, it took fellow candidate John "Jay" Lasita, who's running for the District 8 seat across town from Welch and Peterman, to bring the question out in the open: "Four years ago, Peterman actually beat Welch by a few votes within their district but lost citywide in the general (election).

"If I'm Frank Peterman, and I beat Welch so strongly in the primary, then go on and see that overturned and I lose in the general, then I think I've got a very strong case for why this city should go to single-member districts."

With single-member districts, council members would run in and represent only their geographic districts. That's the way the U.S. House of Representatives are elected, for example, and that's how Florida's Legislature has been elected for almost 20 years.

If Welch should take the general election, it could be because there's a racial component at work in the Peterman-Welch race, which single-member districts might better address.

Black residents make up more than 60 percent of the population in District 6, where Peterman won so handily. Citywide, though, black residents comprise just 20 percent of the population. A general-election win for Welch _ with his name recognition among all voters _ would mean that white voters would necessarily be canceling out the clearly stated preferences of the district's voters.

Another example, one repeated on several occasions, where voters citywide overrode the wishes of district voters was in District 1. Former council member J.

W. Cate would routinely place second in the primary only to be re-elected to office when he ran citywide.

For now, though, both Peterman and Welch are playing to their strengths.

Incumbency has been kind to Welch. After serving 12 of the last 16 years on the council, his views on the issues _ he's very pro-business and development because of the jobs they can bring _ are widely known.

His latest campaign contributions statement, for example, reads like a Who's Who of downtown business interests. Joseph F. Cronin, president of the Florida International Museum, gave him $100. John and Rosemary Galbraith, the museum's chief benefactors, contributed $500. Russ Sloan, executive director of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, was good for $200. Andrew Hines Jr., retired chairman of Florida Power Corp. and its corporate parent, contributed $100.

In the last reporting period, Welch said he had raised about $5,300.

Peterman has taken in far less money _ about $1,500 _ but he's been endorsed by the local firefighters union. That support helps with name recognition, because the firefighters can usually be counted on to post signs and advertising in high-visibility sites around St. Petersburg.

Welch also has a couple of helpful endorsements. The local chapters of the Police Benevolent Association and the International Brotherhood of Firemen and Oilers _ which represents the city's blue-collar workers _ have given him their support.

Welch thinks that a strong interest in the mayoral race between incumbent David J. Fischer and challenger Bill Klein will boost his own chances, because it would tend to bring out voters.

"The mayor's race definitely has a strong bearing on all the council races," Welch says. "And I think there's going to be a good turnout this year."

As for Peterman, he sounds like he is ready for the election today, but apprehensive about it at the same time, because the citywide vote is harder to influence and predict.

"I just hope voters have heard what the district has said," Peterman says. "I want to be the bridge between the district and the rest of the city, because we're all one city. If one part of the city says, "This is what we need, here are the changes we need,' then I hope that the rest of the city would pay heed."

While Peterman will tip his hat to Welch for the economic development programs that the incumbent has been able to bring to St. Petersburg, he makes it clear that he thinks more can be done.

"The summer youth training programs are great, but we've got to grow on that," Peterman says. "We need to understand what kinds of businesses are moving here and what their needs are. This area is the back-office empire, and computers play a central part of that, for example."

Welch knows that, he says, and that's just where he's been taking the city.

"I communicate with people, and I know how to bring jobs and money to the people of St. Petersburg. I go to Tallahassee, I go to Washington, I know what makes a council person effective, and that's what I do best."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.