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Eight candidates vying to become St. Petersburg’s next mayor made their cases and laid out their visions for the city’s future on Tuesday in the first televised debate of this closely watched race.
The participants — City Council members Darden Rice and Robert Blackmon; former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch; former City Council member and state Rep. Wengay Newton; restaurateur Pete Boland; small business owner Marcile Powers; Torry Nelson, who filed to run in the race just days ago; and University of South Florida political science student Michael Ingram — weighed in on the longstanding debate over what to do with the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site, their thoughts on the city’s marina and gun violence in the city, among other issues.
The debate, which was hosted by the Tampa Bay Times and Spectrum Bay News 9, was limited to candidates who qualified for the ballot. Mayoral hopeful Michael Levinson is a write-in candidate, so his name will not appear on the ballot.
The debate was conducted virtually, with candidates on video from their homes, offices or other locations. Toward the end of the debate, Welch’s internet connection failed; he was allowed to later record a small clip answering the questions that he missed, with plans to add that in for future broadcasts of the debate.
Even as candidates stressed ideas to differentiate themselves in the crowded field, there were moments where candidates appeared generally in agreement, including over their beliefs that the next mayor should not feel bound by current Mayor Rick Kriseman’s redevelopment efforts for Tropicana Field.
The candidates mostly focused on their own records and experiences, although there were a few pointed barbs at opponents.
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.
You can watch a recording of the debate here or at tampabay.com/politics. The debate will be replayed on Bay News 9 at 7 p.m.
Here are some of the highlights from the hourlong debate:
The Tampa Bay Rays and the Tropicana Field redevelopment
When it came to the redevelopment of Tropicana Field, nearly all the mayoral candidates shared the same sentiment — it’d be great if the Rays stayed in St. Petersburg, but it needs to work for the community. And the negotiations and plans for redevelopment shouldn’t be made by a lame-duck mayor.
“We need to make sure this development is community-minded and keep the ‘citizens first’ mentality about this,” said Blackmon, who said the redevelopment process should start fresh and give City Council, the Rays and the community more of a seat at the table.
Rice also discussed involving the public in the process, particularly when it comes to feedback on the potential for a split Rays season with Montreal.
Welch pointed to his personal connection to the redevelopment — both in his role as county commissioner promoting bed tax dollars for the project and because of his generational connection to the Black community at Gas Plant that was displaced for the stadium’s initial development.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and we ought to be intentional about making sure that redevelopment reflects our values,” Welch said. “The Rays are a part of that but they’re not the entirety of that.”
Newton said he’d support a split-season team if St. Petersburg got full use of the stadium when the Rays are away.
Racism, policing and violence
While none of the candidates outright said St. Petersburg police had a systemic racism issue, some pointed to policies they said disproportionately impact some city residents.
“We keep locking up Black and brown people over things like marijuana,” Boland said. “If we’re going to really move forward with this issue, we’ve got to end the failed war on drugs.”
Newton made a somewhat cryptic barb at Welch, saying racism was not as big a problem with the police department as it is with Welch, saying “hatred and racism has no place in the city and it pains me to know that’s his true heart.” Newton did not elaborate on what he meant.
Welch ignored Newton’s attack and instead pointed to his own experience being profiled in Largo 30 years ago. He said he attended NAACP community conversations after the recent rash of shootings and highlighted that other debate members did not attend.
“You can’t lead if you’re not with the people,” Welch said.
At times throughout the debate, Nelson said he needed more time to research before giving definite answers. But he said he’s experienced both sides of the law, and said his history of arrests would make him a good candidate to better connect the police department with the community.
Several candidates also pointed to the need for economic and educational opportunities for young people to help reduce shootings in the city.
Lightning round questions
In a round of quick-answer questions, the candidates all agreed that the city’s marina should not be privatized.
Candidates were also asked if they would have done anything differently had they been mayor during the pandemic — a question that made Boland, who’s been highly critical of Kriseman’s mask mandates and had both his businesses cited for violations, rub his hands together in preparation.
“Individual responsibility rules the day,” Boland said.
Both Ingram and Welch said they felt the area’s leadership under the pandemic was strong. Rice said she’d have been more proactive about communicating, Powers would have liked to see more city-supported mental health services and Blackmon said he wouldn’t have “crippled” the small business community in the way he felt Kriseman did.