Where’s the enthusiasm for the St. Petersburg mayoral race?

The mail ballot return rate is down nearly 17 percentage points from 2017, despite the city having 20,000 more registered voters.
A bowl of "I Voted" stickers outside the Supervisor of Elections Office in St. Petersburg in 2020.
A bowl of "I Voted" stickers outside the Supervisor of Elections Office in St. Petersburg in 2020. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Aug. 20, 2021|Updated Aug. 20, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — Unless their neighborhood sprouted dueling political yard signs, many may not be aware that there’s an election around the corner.

Voters have plenty of choices in Tuesday’s primary: Mayor Rick Kriseman is term-limited, and this is the first time there has been an open mayoral race since 2009. Voters will also decide which candidates in City Council Districts 1, 4 and 8 will be on the November ballot.

Among the candidates, there are two sitting City Council members, two former elected officials and the owner of two popular downtown bars.

Yet this election cycle is nothing like the intense 2017 primary, when Kriseman, the incumbent, was pitted against former mayor Rick Baker. Five days before that election, 47 percent of mail ballots had already been returned.

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

But in this year’s primary, it’s just 30 percent. Yet the city has added almost 20,000 more registered voters since then. So why don’t more residents care about the 2021 election?

First-time candidate Pete Boland, owner of The Galley and Mary Margaret’s Olde Irish Tavern, has noticed the lack of interest. He was expecting more in his first campaign: More debates, more news coverage, more opportunities to stand out.

“It’s kind of been a boring campaign so far,” he said. “It just doesn’t feel the same. I thought we’d be in a big room with a couple hundred people. ... I would’ve changed my strategy a little bit if I had known it would be this underwhelming, the coverage of it all.”

Why the low turnout?

There’s a lot going on in the world right now: Red Tide inundated the city’s shoreline with dead fish, then the delta variant fueled a resurgence of COVID-19, which led to a heated political fight over masks as school started.

Low voter turnout could be because of all of the above, or it may have to do with the race itself, said Darryl Paulson, who taught St. Petersburg politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg for 25 years.

“There’s no reason why this is a boring election, or should be,” he said. “There should be more excitement about this particular campaign.”

Darryl Paulson, Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of South Florida.
Darryl Paulson, Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of South Florida. [ Courtesy of Darryl Paulson ]

It could be a case, Paulson said, of too many options. In 2017, he explained, there were two dominant candidates: Kriseman and Baker. And that election, though nonpartisan, turned hyper-partisan off the momentum of the 2016 presidential election.

In 2021, there are several qualified candidates, but perhaps not so many strong personalities.

History could be made in this race. St. Petersburg could have its first Black mayor in Ken Welch, a former Pinellas County commissioner, or Wengay “Newt” Newton, a former council member and state representative, or its first openly gay mayor in current council member Darden Rice. At 32, council member Robert Blackmon could be the first Millennial mayor elected.

Clockwise from left - Ken Welch, Darden Rice, Robert Blackmon and Wengay Newton. They are all running for mayor of St. Petersburg.
Clockwise from left - Ken Welch, Darden Rice, Robert Blackmon and Wengay Newton. They are all running for mayor of St. Petersburg. [ Times files ]

Yet the chance to make history doesn’t seem to be exciting voters.

Local activist Gypsy Gallardo wrote an article on The ‘Burg Votes blog titled, “5 Reasons So Many Black Voters Still Unsure in St. Pete Mayoral Election.”

St. Petersburg activist Gypsy Gallardo.
St. Petersburg activist Gypsy Gallardo. [ Times (2014) ]

“I see and hear less noise this time but predict relatively strong turnout by Black voters for next week’s primary,” she told the Times. “We’ve seen 20 years of nearly uninterrupted growth in Black voter participation in St. Pete. That gives us a stronger core of super voters that may hold during this cycle.”

Newton said the larger swath of undecided voters benefits him. He said his name was not used in a recent poll that estimated 30 percent of voters were undecided 15 days before the election.

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

“That tells me they didn’t want any one of those three,” he said. “They got ballot name recognition and they’re calling super voters.”

Welch, the perceived front-runner, has received several bipartisan endorsements. Perhaps the only negative ad in the race, Rice’s mailer linking Welch, a delegate for President Joe Biden, to Donald Trump, seems to have backfired on her, Paulson said.

“Sometimes nice campaigns can be boring campaigns,” he said, “and that may be an element of what we may see happening in the St. Pete race.”

Kriseman said there’s a lot going on, but there’s no one issue that’s grabbing the voters’ attention.

“Overall, there’s a general sense that the city is moving in the right direction and people are happy overall,” said the outgoing mayor, who has endorsed Welch. “When people aren’t happy and don’t like the direction things are going, that’s when they’re the most vocal and they use their vote to express their opinion the most.”

Former Mayor Bill Foster, a Republican who has endorsed Welch, said most residents don’t seem to care.

Former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster during a 2013 mayoral debate.
Former St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster during a 2013 mayoral debate.

“I would hardly know there is a primary coming up,” he said. “Other than the junk you see on TV, there’s very little that’s guiding me to a primary.

“I think it’s odd. I think it’s a combination of complacency, pandemic and overall lack of interest. It’s perplexing.”

Foster, who was elected mayor in 2009 but lost his re-election bid to Kriseman in 2013, pointed to a decline in local news coverage, specifically the Tampa Bay Times.

“People don’t know what they don’t know,” he said. “It’s a sign of the times.”

The Rev. Kenny Irby, who also works for the city as Director of Community Intervention and Juvenile Outreach for the St. Petersburg Police Department, said people are unsurprisingly preoccupied.

Congregations like Irby’s Historic Bethel AME Church still haven’t returned to in-person services, he said, so there’s less opportunity on the weekends to engage with congregants.

Rev. Kenny Irby is the pastor of Historic Bethel A.M.E. Church in St Petersburg.
Rev. Kenny Irby is the pastor of Historic Bethel A.M.E. Church in St Petersburg. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

“I think the impersonal reality of the internet is what we’re seeing in a very real way,” Irby said, pointing to Facebook posts, Instagram messaging, TV, junk mail posters and mailboxes full of fliers and leaflets. “But (for) in-person engagement, candidates have to be much more creative about the places that they’re going and how they’re interacting.”

Irby said he was surprised the candidates did not make more appearances during the 10 weeks of the Not My Son campaign, which promotes positive achievement and anti-crime awareness among young Black men. He said he noticed several events like flag-waving and campaign rallies the weekend before the election, building up energy.

“The primaries I’ve seen in St. Petersburg in 27 years are not high energy,” he said. “Once people get beyond the primary, folks are really focused on who they’re going to vote for and the energy of the electorate will be re-stimulated, I hope.”

Council of Neighborhood Associations president Tom Lally says he believes the voters have been engaged. The local neighborhood associations held their own candidate forums, and he heard they were well attended.

“With all the information I’m seeing on social media, it seems like there is a lot of attention,” Lally said. “I’m surprised to hear other than that. All the candidates with their positions and their fliers and info about what’s going on. People talking about the races. And I’m very excited.”

‘Our biggest enemy is apathy’

Even the candidates agree that something is off this election year.

Blackmon says he keeps getting stopped and recognized on Central Avenue and at Tyrone Square mall, yet he says it’s hard to gauge his standing.

“People aren’t out there as vocally and aggressively because of COVID,” he said. “But people are watching from home and they are paying attention.”

He said he’s pivoted to phone calls, door-knocking and shaking hands with safety precautions.

“You can network and meet the candidates one-on-one,” Blackmon said. “It’s kind of a return to old school politicking, where you actually get to talk to the candidate.”

Newton, who has been knocking on the doors of voters who requested mail ballots, agreed that voters may be distracted. “There’s a lot going on,” he said.

Welch said constituents wonder if their votes really count or matter, and their faith in voting by mail has been undermined.

“We had the pandemic, we had the George Floyd issue,” he said. “After that, nothing really surprises me. I think this is a natural response to what we saw last year and the continuing pandemic.”

To counter that, Welch said he’s reaching out to people using social media and traditional organizations like churches and civic clubs — sometimes just to let them know there is an election. But it’s not the same, he said. And he’s also noticed a lack of news coverage, also in the Times.

“You don’t get any natural feedback when you’re in a Zoom debate,” he said. “It’s different.”

Rice’s campaign is keeping track of mail-in ballots. She said half of them are still sitting on voters’ tables. Her team is fired up, she said, but COVID has cast a pall on things.

“It’s hard to generate that same excitement on a Zoom call,” she said. “Once we narrow it down to two candidates ... the juju is gonna come back.”

Rice said voters may not feel like their voice matters.

“I think our biggest enemy is apathy,” she said.