It may have been a quiet year for politics around Tampa Bay. But 2021 was hardly uneventful. Let’s look back at some highlights from the year that was.
St Pete elects first Black mayor
After a somewhat subdued campaign — at least compared to the city’s last mayor’s race in 2017 — St. Petersburg overcame its segregated past and elected Ken Welch, scion of a family long prominent in the city’s Black community, as its mayor.
Ken Welch seemed almost destined to be the one to break that racial barrier.
His father, the late teacher, accountant and civic activist David Welch, was known as a political power broker in the city’s gas plant area and became the second black City Council member in the St. Petersburg’s history.
His uncle, the late Rev. Clarence Welch, was pastor of the Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ.
Welch himself eyed the mayor’s race for years while serving five terms as a Pinellas County commissioner.
His campaign heavily emphasized participation by all in the city’s prosperity, telling the Tampa Bay Times when he announced his campaign, “New development in and of itself is not progress … 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.”
Rays eye Ybor, Castor open to split season
The effort to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in Tampa Bay shifted to focus on an Ybor City stadium location as Mayor Jane Castor expressed openness to a split season with Montreal.
The Rays have promised to pay half the roughly $700 million cost of a 27,000-seat, open stadium, possibly located at the site of the former Kforce building between downtown and Ybor. It was sold recently to a partnership including developer Darryl Shaw.
Early in December, Castor met with Rays owner Stu Sternberg and said her staff is working with Hillsborough County and the Tampa Sports Authority on a financial package, which she said won’t include any city general fund dollars.
She promised details in a few weeks, but a December online poll by a pro-Castor political committee asked respondents about using a mix of property and sales taxes from new development in a “Ballpark District,” plus some form of tourism tax. That likely would require county commissioners’ approval.
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Weird race to replace Charlie Crist
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, announced he’ll leave his southern Pinellas U.S. House seat to run for governor.
That set off a scramble, including a repeat of the 2020 Republican primary between Anna Paulina Luna and Amanda Makki. It quickly turned weird.
In June, Luna sought a stalking injunction claiming her life was threatened by another candidate who later dropped out. Luna also sought to implicate Makki, without much evidence. The injunction was later dismissed.
In September Luna was endorsed by Donald Trump, but also came under attack from Trump follower Roger Stone. Meanwhile, she and Makki each sought to cast herself as the true Trump follower in the race.
On the Democratic side, state Reps. Ben Diamond and Michele Rayner both announced they’ll run, along with former Obama administration official Eric Lynn, leaving their state House seats open.
Hillsborough district maps spur battles
Partisan-tinged redistricting battles broke out on both the Hillsborough Board of Commissioners and School Board.
Democratic majorities on both boards won, raising questions about the future of Republican members, as both local political parties took sides in both debates.
The commissioners held a rancorous, racially tinged debate over two maps — one proposed by Democratic board chairperson Pat Kemp and one by another Democratic member, Gwen Myers, but with Republican support.
Kemp’s map won 4-3 with Myers joining the two Republicans in opposition. It makes Republican Ken Hagan’s north Hillsborough District 2 more Democrat-friendly.
The school board, meanwhile, rejected a map proposed by Republican board member Stacy Hahn and adopted one by Democrat Karen Perez. It could encourage a Democratic challenger to Hahn. Party loyalty was clear in the debate and the 5-2 party-line vote.
Scientology forces Clearwater’s hand
Scientologists continued amassing properties in and near downtown Clearwater in what looked like an attempt to interfere with the city’s revitalization effort.
A 2019 Times investigation found that companies tied to Scientology had bought 100 properties within walking distance of the waterfront and the church’s headquarters, then left many of those buildings and lots vacant.
This year, a new investigation found that church-connected companies bought 45 more properties in North Marina, a 55-acre district where the city hopes for new housing, a hotel and shopping.
In response, city officials appear to be softening their opposition to working with the church.
In November and December, new city manager Jon Jennings, city attorney David Margolis and Mayor Frank Hibbard had meetings and phone calls with church leader David Miscavige, discussing what was called a “partnership” with the church on redevelopment.
Redistricting proposals aim at Tampa Bay area
Both houses of the state Legislature released proposals for new Congressional districts, to be decided on early next year, that would shake up representation in the Tampa Bay area.
Senate proposals would turn U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor’s Tampa-based district from a safe Democratic seat to a swing district. Both the state Senate and state House proposals would divide Tampa among two districts, which has drawn objections from the City Council.
The Senate maps would also create a new, Democratic-leaning district in east Hillsborough, likely to draw interest of prominent Democratic candidates.
Meanwhile, both legislative houses would make the southern Pinellas district of Crist more Republican-friendly.
Turmoil in Hillsborough GOP
Divisiveness continued among Hillsborough Republicans over the local party leadership, as the state party upheld a grievance by dissident party official April Schiff against Chairman Jim Waurishuk and members of his leadership team.
Schiff contended the other party officials sought to prevent her from functioning in her position as a representative to the state party.
Waurishuk has attracted national attention with inflammatory and conspiratorial social media posts condemning Democrats. Party fundraising and numbers of precinct representatives have declined.
Meanwhile, a committee of prominent GOP leaders formed as a supplement to the party organization began fundraising for a voter registration drive.