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County Commissioner Ken Welch announces St. Petersburg mayoral bid

The five-term Pinellas County Commissioner has been eyeing the top job in his native city for years.
Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch plans to announced Friday that he is running for mayor of St. Petersburg.
Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch plans to announced Friday that he is running for mayor of St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times (2018) ]
Published Jan. 15, 2021
Updated Jan. 20, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — Five-term county commissioner and St. Petersburg native Ken Welch launched his long-anticipated campaign for mayor on Friday.

Welch said the city has come a long way in the last decade. He credited the tide of development under Mayor Rick Kriseman with helping elevate the city beyond its old reputation as “heaven’s waiting room.” But Welch said as mayor he’ll focus on spreading the city’s good fortune.

“New development in and of itself is not progress,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “We should have a community where every neighborhood feels that they are invested in our progress, that they benefit from our progress, and that they are not displaced by our progress.”

The candidate called the 2021 city election “a crossroads in our history.”

With his paperwork filed, Welch, 56, is the latest big name to announce his bid to replace Kriseman, who is in his seventh year as mayor and is term limited. Two-term St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice filed her paperwork this week following months of speculation that she would run. And former City Council member, former state representative and former County Commission candidate Wengay Newton has also announced his bid for the office. First-time candidate Michael Ingram is also running.

Welch said his top priority as mayor will be to lead St. Petersburg through a successful pandemic recovery. He also said he wants to ensure the city continues to meet the requirements of its consent order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection — reached following the 2015-16 sewage crises — which mandates that St. Petersburg must spend hundreds of millions to upgrade infrastructure.

After that, Welch said his attention will turn to redeveloping the Tropicana Field site, which reached a milestone on Friday: interested developers submitted their grand visions for the property. He said he will make sure the history of the site is not forgotten. The city razed the predominantly Black neighborhood, the Gas Plant District, to build the baseball stadium. But promises of economic prosperity for the community never materialized.

“Tropicana Field is not a blank slate, it’s a slate that’s etched with the sacrifice of thousands of folks who live there and were displaced,” he said.

He also wants to see the city’s bus rapid transit initiative come to fruition and work on the city’s housing affordability problem.

Welch said he also wants to bring a new style to City Hall. He called it his “six I’s” of governing: in touch with the community; inclusive leadership; informed decision making; innovation, which he said includes creative problem solving in addition to technology (“We’re definitely going to make City Hall an Apple house”); intentional equity; and impact. Together, he said, those values can usher in what he called “principled progress.”

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One area where he said he could apply that philosophy is the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, which he advocated to create on the County Commission. Traditional community redevelopment areas fund development, such as the new St. Pete Pier. But the South St Petersburg area is meant to reduce the area’s historic poverty. Welch said he believes the city has, at times, allocated money from the fund in ways that don’t reflect its purpose.

“The goal is not to displace the people, the goal is to empower the people through education, training, family support and entrepreneurial support to break the bonds of generation poverty.”

Welch was elected to the Pinellas County Commission in 2000, representing St. Petersburg. Before that, he was a senior accountant for the Florida Power Corp. (now Duke Energy Florida) for 14 years. The son of a former St. Petersburg City Council member and third generation St. Petersburg native, Welch considered a mayoral bid in 2010 before deciding against it.

But he expressed his interest in the job again in 2018. That year, Welch drew criticism for lobbying for his wife, who had been fired from leading a youth literacy program funded with taxpayer dollars. Welch said he did not use his political clout to help his wife, and believes her firing was orchestrated by his political rivals.

Welch has a political action committee, Pelican PAC, that has raised more than $58,000. That pales in comparison to Rice’s committee, Friends of Darden Rice, which has raised more than $220,000. Nevertheless, Welch said he’s not worried about a funding gap.

Related: Darden Rice files to run for St. Petersburg mayor

“My focus was not on fundraising during 2020, it was on shaping our response (to the pandemic),” he said. “You need a base amount of funds to get the message out, and I’m confident we’re going to reach that target.”

The primary election is Aug. 24. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will advance to a Nov. 2 general election. Four council races will also be decided this year. City races are nonpartisan.