Everyone is talking about DeSantis — except in St. Pete’s mayor race

The Republican governor hasn’t factored into the campaign to lead the city, though he looms large over it.
Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch (left), Gov. Ron DeSantis (middle) and City Councilmember Robert Blackmon
Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch (left), Gov. Ron DeSantis (middle) and City Councilmember Robert Blackmon [ Dirk Shadd; Tribune News Services ]
Published Sept. 23, 2021|Updated Sept. 24, 2021

He’s on the front pages of Florida’s newspapers most days and the evening national news many nights. He’s debated in local school board meetings and on prime time cable news programs. He’s a topic of conversation in races from California to Virginia and in the White House briefing room. He’s a hashtag and on flags.

It seems everyone these days is talking about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — except the candidates running for mayor in St. Petersburg.

Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon have all but ignored the state’s consequential and contentious governor on the campaign trail. DeSantis hardly came up during the summer primary, and he remains a distant presence in the weeks since the race for City Hall became a two-man runoff. Welch hasn’t openly criticized the governor like many fellow Florida Democrats. Nor has Blackmon, a Republican, aligned himself with his party’s ascending leader.

In recent interviews with the Tampa Bay Times, Welch and Blackmon said it is simply the nature of a municipal election where party affiliation isn’t on the ballot.

“I don’t spend a lot of time saying his name,” Welch said. “Potholes and public safety are nonpartisan.”

“I’ve never met DeSantis,” Blackmon, said. “I’m always going to be a local guy first and foremost.”

Yet it’s undeniable that DeSantis looms large over the race after a year of far-reaching actions targeting offices like the one Welch and Blackmon are seeking. DeSantis nullified the pandemic protocols most large cities put in place and lately he has threatened to fine localities that mandate vaccines for government workers. He also tied the hands of mayors who want to address their public safety budgets and signed a bill that prevents cities from establishing renewable energy goals.

Related: Newsom used DeSantis to win California recall. Does it mean anything in Florida?

Across the state, city leaders — including the man Welch and Blackmon want to replace, Mayor Rick Kriseman — have bristled at these moves, believing that DeSantis is undermining the same governments that took action to slow the spread of coronavirus when the state wouldn’t intervene. In May, Kriseman tweeted: “Can you imagine if each city had been led by Ron DeSantis? How many lives would have been lost? What would our economy look like today?”

Welch said he is also bothered by DeSantis’ attack on local home rule, but it’s not his style to be combative like Kriseman. He hopes to find common ground with the governor if elected, he said.

“I’ve never had a fight-first approach,” Welch said. “But there are some issues where you definitely have to draw the line.”

Blackmon said he was supportive when DeSantis pulled back the state of emergency in Florida and opened businesses. He also believes there’s less distance between DeSantis and local leaders on vaccines than has been covered in recent headlines. For example, Blackmon said he thinks cities that allow government workers to get tested regularly for coronavirus in lieu of vaccination doesn’t run afoul of the governor. That’s the policy he and Welch would adopt, they said, which is similar to those in Tampa and Miami.

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“I would’ve said he did the greatest job in the world three months ago,” Blackmon said. “Now we’re having an uptick. It’s still a tumultuous time in flux. History will be written later.”

DeSantis has an especially frayed relationship with the leaders that run Florida’s largest cities, many of which are Democrats.

Past Republican governors have welcomed Democratic mayors at ribbon cuttings or offered a helping hand during crises. DeSantis has been less inclined to do so. Kriseman said he talked often with Sen. Rick Scott when the Republican was governor, especially during hurricane season, but he hasn’t spoken to DeSantis once in three years. Earlier this month, DeSantis didn’t invite Tampa Mayor Jane Castor to a news conference in her city about progress on the West Shore Interchange construction.

Tensions between Kriseman and DeSantis boiled over this summer as Red Tide algae blooms put a stench over St. Petersburg and threatened the city’s businesses and marine life. Kriseman accused DeSantis of disappearing on St. Petersburg during its moment of need; DeSantis shot back that Kriseman made the crisis political.

Through the dust up, Welch and Blackmon were largely silent on DeSantis’ handling of the environmental catastrophe. Welch attended a summer rally to urge DeSantis to take stronger actions to address the Red Tide algae blooms, though candidates weren’t given a chance at the microphone. He said he wanted to focus on problems that local governments can control.

“Those are the things that make a difference, rather than when the Red Tide is in the water and calling out the governor,” Welch said.

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

DeSantis’ handling of the leak at the Piney Point phosphate plant is another local point of contention related to Red Tide. At a July press conference in St. Petersburg, DeSantis argued discharges from the plant site into Tampa Bay — allowed by his administration — didn’t cause Red Tide off St. Pete’s coast. Environmental groups and scientists have said that perspective ignores how the pollution likely made the historically bad bloom even worse.

Asked about DeSantis’ take on the Piney Point discharges, Blackmon said: “I don’t know, but do you think (the discharges) helped the problem? Absolutely not. I always get worried when we get caught in a blame game. Piney Point was bad. Period. Our water quality got worse. Period.”

Related: How Robert Blackmon can win the St. Petersburg mayor’s race

The current posture of the candidates is a stark departure from four years ago when national politics helped shape the race between Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker. Kriseman bet that an overwhelmingly blue city wouldn’t install a Donald Trump acolyte as its leader and he often tied Baker, a Republican, to the then-president. Kriseman was ultimately victorious.

Welch has made no such gamble this time. City Councilwoman Darden Rice, a Democrat and the third-place finisher in the August primary, said people are tired of political fights like the ongoing feud between Kriseman and DeSantis. Notably, Rice attempted to cut into Welch’s support by tying her opponent to Trump, not DeSantis.

“When you launch a broadside against a powerful elected official, it has to be done right, it has to be factual and it has to count,” Rice said. “If it’s just partisanship, you may undermine your ability to call him out.”

Kriseman, who has endorsed Welch, thinks the tone of the race could change if state Republicans suddenly bring firepower to help Blackmon’s campaign.

“Then I don’t think Ken is going to sit back and take it,” Kriseman said. “He will speak out.”

Despite his growing political clout, DeSantis, a native of Dunedin, so far hasn’t shown interest in engaging in a race 20 minutes from his childhood home. State Sen. Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said it’s a challenge for the party to get involved in municipal races in heavily Democratic cities, but he said, “We’re going to support him any way we can.”

For his part, Blackmon hasn’t attempted to tap into the Republican fervor for DeSantis. Blackmon attended the Pasco County Republican Party fundraiser earlier this month where DeSantis was the keynote speaker, but they didn’t interact during the dinner.

Blackmon said he hasn’t asked DeSantis’ camp to get the governor involved on the campaign trail, though he wouldn’t turn it down.

“Anybody who wants to support me, I’m happy to have their support,” he said.

Pete Boland, a local restaurateur who finished fifth in the August primary for mayor, has been a vocal supporter of DeSantis’ approach to reopening Florida’s economy and said the governor has many backers within the city’s hospitality industry. But Boland also acknowledged that political realities in St. Petersburg make him difficult for Blackmon to embrace.

Boland stood alongside DeSantis at his July press conference on Red Tide in St. Petersburg. So did the other Republican on City Council, Ed Montanari. Blackmon was not in attendance.

“DeSantis has been playing the culture war for better or worse and there’s a lot of quiet support for him,” Boland said. “But he’s very polarizing and some of what he has done is hard to get a long with.”