It was a puzzling moment in last month’s mayoral candidate forum: Asked whether racism is a problem in the St. Petersburg Police Department, candidate Wengay Newton instead directed a racism accusation at fellow candidate Ken Welch — and then neglected to say why.
“I don’t think it’s a problem with the police department as it is with one of our mayoral candidates, Mr. Welch,” Newton, a former state House member, said of the veteran county commissioner.
Both men are Black; Welch declined a chance to respond in the forum.
Newton has now tweeted and posted on Facebook his evidence for the attack — a text message sent to him more than a year ago by Welch in which Welch refers to former Mayor Rick Baker as “this massa.”
In the message, sent to a group of Black elected officials, Welch said he’d just been told Baker would run for mayor (Baker considered it but didn’t) and adds, “Need some Vaseline for whupping this massa.”
This week, Welch and at least one other person who received the message denied there was any racist intent, saying use of the expression referring to slave masters is rhetoric Black people sometimes use concerning white people who believe they should guide or control the Black community.
“It’s about that mentality of being gatekeepers,” Welch said. The Vaseline reference was to boxers’ use of Vaseline on their faces to lessen injury from punches in a fight. He called Newton’s attack “a desperate attempt to smear my campaign.”
Newton said his comment was “not an attack. I just put out there what he said and what he is.”
County Commissioner Rene Flowers, one of those who received the text message, said the word was “not used in a racist manner.” She said some Black people use the term “referencing some person who may feel he is the only person who has the ability to lead and guide a group of people,” citing local and national Black leaders she has heard use the word.
She said the message went out in March 2020.
“If Wengay Newton was so disturbed by it, he should have said something a year ago,” Flowers said.
Baker said Saturday that “Ken Welch’s hate-filled text sadly reveals what many of us know. He is no uniter.”
Note: This story was updated July 24 to include comments from Wengay Newton and Rick Baker.