ST. PETERSBURG — Growing up with a father who served on City Council, politics was always around Ken Welch, but it never interested him.
“I always said as a kid I would never go into politics,” he said recently.
Now, after a 20-year career on the Pinellas County Commission, the 56-year-old has entered the race for mayor of St. Petersburg. And if elected, Welch would be the city’s first Black mayor.
It’s the love he has for his city — where he grew up, graduated from high school, met his wife and has raised his daughters — that he said compelled him to run.
“I think we’re at an important point in our history,” he said. “The decisions we make in the next few years will affect generations.”
A Lakewood High School graduate, Welch began his entry into politics while in graduate school, writing about city issues in the 1990s as a columnist for then-St. Petersburg Times, weighing in on topics like baseball in the city and chronicling an incident when he said he was racially profiled by police in Largo.
He ran unsuccessfully for the Pinellas County School Board in 1998 and later ran in 2000 for County Commission, winning a newly-created single-member district that includes St. Petersburg. He won reelection four more times and served until 2020, when he did not seek reelection in order to run for mayor.
Among what Welch considers his greatest accomplishments during his time on the County Commission are his work on homelessness, small business enterprise and poverty reduction.
He chaired the county’s first policy group on homelessness in 2006, from which came Pinellas Hope in partnership with Catholic Charities. He pushed to increase the county’s small business enterprise program from $70,000 to more than $20 million, and he pushed for the incorporation of the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, the first CRA in the county with the purpose of fighting poverty.
He was also on the County Commission when it started the county’s housing trust fund, which Welch said now has more than $100 million in its coffers. And he touted Pinellas County’s record on diversion programs, redirecting kids and adults accused of minor crimes away from jail.
An accountant by trade, Welch went to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg for his undergraduate degree and then to Florida A&M University for his master’s in business administration. He worked at Florida Power, Raymond James and St. Petersburg College, upgrading their accounting systems.
“I’m really into business process,” he said, and wants to take that experience to make city government work more efficiently.
As an executive, Welch said he would lead with his six “I”s: in touch with the community, inclusive, informed, innovative, intentional equity and impact.
He described the city as having experienced incredible growth the last decade, shirking the “heaven’s waiting room” label to blossom into a city of art and food and luxury apartments.
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“But growth in and of itself isn’t progress,” Welch said. “I want to make sure that we have inclusive progress in every part of our city.”
He said he is the person to restore constructive dialogue with the Tampa Bay Rays over a stadium deal, that the team’s split-season idea is worth exploring and the Al Lang Stadium site — where the Rays sought to build a new venue in 2008 — should be back on the table.
But his priority, he said, is ensuring the redeveloped Tropicana Field site delivers on the unkept promises of new homes and jobs for the residents of the Gas Plant area, the neighborhood that was displaced before the stadium went up. He said he would not pay “any price” to keep baseball, but does believe it’s critical to decide first if a stadium will go on that site before moving forward with the development.
“We’ve waited 35 years,” he said. “I think waiting another year to get it right is the right course to take.”
He also wants to see a transit referendum put on the ballot soon and prioritizing investing in youth opportunities, particularly upgrading the city’s recreation centers.
In 2018, Welch drew criticism for lobbying for his wife, who had been fired from leading a youth literacy program funded by taxpayer dollars. Welch, who that year began expressing interest in running for mayor, has said he did not use his political clout to help his wife, and believes her firing was orchestrated by his political rivals.
Welch’s political committee, Pelican PAC, has raised more than $159,000, while his campaign has raised more than $123,000.
Other candidates include City Council members Robert Blackmon and Darden Rice, and former City Council member and state Representative Wengay Newton.
Others in the field include restaurateur Pete Boland, former political operative and marketer Marcile Powers, University of South Florida political science student Michael Ingram, Torry Nelson and former congressional write-in candidate Michael Levinson.
The primary election is Aug. 24. If no candidate earns more than 50 percent of the votes, the top two candidates will face off in the Nov. 2 general election.
The new mayor will be sworn in Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022 and will serve a four-year term.
The Tampa Bay Times and Spectrum Bay News 9 are hosting a mayoral debate Tuesday, June 22 at noon. Watch it live at tampabay.com/politics and at baynews9.com/watch. It will replay on Bay News 9 at 7 p.m. This is the fifth in a series of profiles on the candidates.
Robert Blackmon: St. Petersburg mayoral run about ideas, not personalities
Michael Ingram: Could this 20-year-old be St. Petersburg’s next mayor?
Wengay Newton: Newton is passionate, persistent, combative
Marcile Powers: With an open heart, Powers runs for St. Petersburg mayor