In St. Petersburg mayor’s race, development dollars play major role in campaigns

Real estate companies, developers and investors have taken an active interest in the race’s front-runners.
Screenshot of the June 22, 2021, St. Petersburg mayoral debate, hosted by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9.
Screenshot of the June 22, 2021, St. Petersburg mayoral debate, hosted by the Tampa Bay Times and Bay News 9. [ Jake Sheridan | Times ]
Published Aug. 20, 2021

St. Petersburg’s next mayor is going to have a large influence on the future development of this growing city — which makes it unsurprising, perhaps, that real estate companies, developers and investors have taken an active interest in the race’s front-runners.

Ken Welch and Darden Rice have both brought in sizable sums from these groups, as has Robert Blackmon to a lesser extent. Thousands more have poured in through the candidates’ affiliated political committees, which don’t have the $1,000 cap on donations that campaign contributions do.

Overall, Rice has amassed the largest pot of money, totaling just under $750,000 through her campaign and her political committee. Welch has received more than $465,000 and Blackmon, who entered the race later, has raised about $285,000.

After that, contributions have trailed off considerably. Restaurateur Pete Boland has raised about $92,000 through his campaign and political committee; Wengay Newton, the former council member and state representative, has brought in about $38,000; University of South Florida St. Petersburg student Michael Ingram has raised just under $5,000; and both St. Petersburg native Torry Nelson and small business owner Marcile Powers have raised about $1,500.

Nelson, the last candidate to qualify, said he felt like the money isn’t the be-all-end-all and that working-class voters like those he’s reaching aren’t always able to donate $1,000.

Related: Here's what you need to know in St. Petersburg's mayor, City Council races

Powers said she wished campaigns weren’t so financially driven. She said she was comfortable with the amount she raised and she didn’t want any direct mailers or lawn signs because of the environmental impact.

“The last thing I want is a sea turtle choking on something with my name on it,” she said.

Blackmon said that, despite being outraised and outspent by Welch and Rice, the success of his campaign shows he knows how to manage money. Blackmon also noted that he was supported by local restaurateurs, like The Mill and Nash’s Hot Chicken, linking that support to his pushback last year against citations that Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration levied against businesses over coronavirus code violations.

“With polling where it is, I think it just goes to show who’s been able to be a prudent fiscal steward,” Blackmon said, referencing an Aug. 5 poll by St. Pete Polls that showed him second in support behind Welch. “I’m working hard and I’m working smart and that’s exactly what you want in a mayor.”

Despite the large amounts taken in by Welch and Rice, this year’s totals pale in comparison to 2017′s contentious mayoral race, where candidates Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker together took in almost $2.5 million.

A majority of this year’s donations to candidates came from within Florida, although not all in Tampa Bay.

One of the largest donors in the race is South Florida real estate developer Daniel Kodsi, the CEO of Royal Palm Cos. Kodsi donated $17,000 to Welch and $37,000 to Rice.

Daniel Kodsi, the CEO of Royal Palm Companies.
Daniel Kodsi, the CEO of Royal Palm Companies. [ JESUS ARANGUREN | AP ]

Kodsi’s company has eyed a development in St. Petersburg south of downtown since about 2018. The following year, Mayor Kriseman expressed his excitement for the project, but he noted there would be strict development standards to account for climate change and rising tides.

Royal Palm Cos.’ website lists the year for the nearly 50-acre St. Petersburg project as “TBD.”

At least 32 people who listed their occupation as “real estate” or “developer” donated to Welch’s political committee; Rice’s political committee recorded at least 39 donations from people listing those occupations.

At least nine donated to Blackmon’s political committee, which received significantly fewer donations in general — a few dozen compared to the hundreds of donations received by Welch and Rice.

A number of developers donated to both Welch and Rice, including Robert Glaser, the CEO of Smith & Associates Real Estate. Miami-based Joe Furst, whose company owns properties in the Warehouse Arts District, and Mel Sembler, a real estate mogul and former U.S. ambassador, donated to all three front-runners.

Mel Sembler at the White House last year.
Mel Sembler at the White House last year. [ Special to the Times ]

“It’s great to have so much support,” Welch said in a statement. “St. Pete is booming but we have to be strategic in our growth and that means ensuring that from parks to permits we take a streamlined and equitable approach to developing to ensure everyone can enjoy the Sunshine City.”

Newton also brought in some donations from developers, including from businessman Bill Edwards and from Lema Construction.

Despite the looming question of the redevelopment of Tropicana Field, neither the Tampa Bay Rays nor its owner, Stuart Sternberg, donated to any of the mayoral candidates. In 2017, the Rays donated more than $80,000 to Kriseman.

After that race, and the money that poured into it, then-City Council chairperson Rice called for limiting political campaign contributions from political committees to $5,000.

Three donations to her committee have topped that: $25,000 from Kodsi, $10,000 from CEO Kamal Majeed and $10,000 from Glaser.

St. Petersburg did pass an ordinance in 2017 limiting contributions to political committees, but the Florida Legislature preempted it in 2020 after the urging of Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

In a statement, Rice said it was unfortunate that the Legislature overturned the city’s campaign finance reform ordinance but said she wouldn’t hamstring her campaign by following a rule her opponents weren’t.

“We are following the law as it currently stands,” she said. “As Mayor, I will continue to fight for reform.”

Related: Eight St. Petersburg mayoral candidates debate their visions for the city

Along with raising the most money, Rice has spent the most, dropping about $273,000 on various consultants and associated campaign costs. Welch’s team has spent about $220,000 as of the latest report, and Blackmon has spent about $71,000.

Boland said that, as a first-time candidate who only entered the race in June, he knew fundraising would be a challenge. He said the amount he raised has been enough to communicate his message effectively, and that people know his history of being strongly engaged in the city.

“We feel like we’ve exceeded some expectations already and we’re looking forward to the vote,” Boland said. “We think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”