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How Ken Welch can win the St. Petersburg mayor’s race

Democratic insiders share what it will take for the city to elect its first Black mayor.
St. Petersburg Mayoral candidate Ken Welch talks with the media after voting along with his family at Lake Vista Recreation Center, 1401 62nd Ave S, during the St Petersburg primary election day on Aug. 24 in St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg Mayoral candidate Ken Welch talks with the media after voting along with his family at Lake Vista Recreation Center, 1401 62nd Ave S, during the St Petersburg primary election day on Aug. 24 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 14
Updated Sep. 14

ST. PETERSBURG — Ken Welch has a lot of advantages heading into the closing months of the St. Petersburg mayoral race.

He has momentum after his commanding performance in last month’s crowded primary. He has a financial lead over his opponent, City Council member Robert Blackmon. He has an electorate edge in a city where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans two-to-one. He has a favorable narrative as he campaigns to become the city’s first Black mayor.

It would take a seismic shakeup in the political terrain or a barnstorming surge by Blackmon to upend Welch’s path to City Hall. With those kind of odds, it might be tempting for Welch, a former Pinellas County commissioner, to employ a cautious strategy down the stretch.

Charlie Gerdes, a former St. Petersburg City Council member, has strongly advised Welch against being too careful.

“He has to run like he’s losing and the numbers are flipped,” Gerdes said of his fellow Democrat. “You cannot take for granted that this city is a majority Democrat constituency. I know that he knows that because I keep reminding him.”

After coming out ahead in the primary with 39.4 percent of the vote, Welch quickly tied down an important loose end. Last week, he earned the endorsement of third-place finisher Darden Rice, whose 16.6 percent of the vote would be enough to push Welch over the top if her significant slice of younger, white Democratic voters flock to him.

Related: What’s next for Darden Rice? Perhaps working with Ken Welch in City Hall.

“How do we truly address equity and racist policies and how do we turn the page and move forward?” Rice told the Times last week. “I think a lot of people thought this was Ken’s time.”

Welch must still persuade those voters — and the ones who came out for him in August — to show up in November, Gerdes said. That will take money. To date Welch has raised $286,000 to Blackmon’s $160,000. It’s a sizable advantage, but one that could flip with a big check from one motivated Republican donor.

“We have to make sure we’re raising the funds to communicate,” said Reggie Cardozo, a consultant to the Welch campaign. “The Republican establishment will get behind (Blackmon) now.”

Any effort by Welch to quickly campaign off his momentum was halted after he tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month despite being vaccinated. His exposure to the virus forced him to virtually attend a post-election in-person fundraiser. It also delayed production of new advertisements.

Related: The other side: How Robert Blackmon can win

“We’ll be back on the air very soon continuing our message of inclusive progress, with a focus on roots and responsibility,” Welch said through a spokeswoman.

Welch’s bout with the virus is a reminder of the pandemic’s unpredictable nature, and how it continues to hinder campaigns and candidates from making personal connections with voters.

Gerdes said attendance at virtual events has been sparse and didn’t generate the same enthusiasm as an in-person campaign. The subdued nature of the campaign to date is a noticeable departure from the historic 2017 race, when Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker clashed daily by any method imaginable — retail politics, staged events and expensive advertisements fueled by fundraisers.

Despite the quieter campaign, Welch is much better positioned than Kriseman was four years ago. Kriseman, a Democrat, was behind after the 2017 primary, largely due to the strong performance by Baker, a Republican, in St. Petersburg’s predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Welch won outright majorities in 16 of St. Petersburg’s 19 majority-Black precincts last month, a Times analysis found.

Related: What’s the path to St. Petersburg mayor? And other takeaways from Tuesday’s primary

Rene Flowers, who represents those neighborhoods on the Pinellas County Commission, said Welch should continue to stress the historical significance of his campaign to those voters.

“Since everyone is talking about equity and diversity and inclusion, he should give rise to the fact he’s the first African-American contender to make it through the primary and would be the first African-American mayor if elected,” Flowers said. “It would show the city is not just talking about inclusivity but moving in that direction.”

Flowers expects Blackmon to more aggressively target Welch now that it’s a two-person race with a clear front-runner.

“When you have someone down 10 points or more, they’re going to come at you. They’re going to make you address what they’re saying,” Flowers said. “Don’t allow someone to pull you out and get you off your platform.”

The expectation is that Blackmon will attempt to persuade voters that St. Petersburg could be doing better than its current trajectory. His case is that he can bring change to the city, while Welch — who is endorsed by Kriseman — would be a continuation of the current administration.

Cesar Fernandez, Kriseman’s 2013 campaign manager and adviser to the Democrat’s re-election team in 2017, said Welch shouldn’t shy away from that debate.

“The advantage Ken Welch has is people love living in St. Pete,” he said. “All of these things make it hard for a Blackmon to say, ‘We had it wrong. We need change.’ ”

Fernandez also said Welch should focus on comparing his record to Blackmon’s. Welch, 57, has a long history in local elected office; Blackmon, 32, is a first-term council member.

“If I were advising them, I’d say voters really, really care about that contrast,” Fernandez said. “He needs to remind voters what is at stake if the city goes backwards on the progress they’ve made in the last eight years.”

Times staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.