ST. PETERSBURG — As the dust settled from a mayoral primary election that pitted two of the city’s top Democrats against each other, Darden Rice and Ken Welch reminisced via texts.
They talked over coffee about their work together on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, Forward Pinellas and waste management issues. They cleared the air over negative political ads.
Then came comparisons to Kamala Harris and Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — fierce political opponents from the same party who joined forces after bitter primaries to win the big election and work together in office.
“I want Ken Welch to be the best mayor for St. Pete,” Rice told the Tampa Bay Times. “And I want him to succeed and I want the city to succeed. And I’m glad to be a part of making that happen.”
Rice has officially endorsed Welch, the frontrunner for mayor and may potentially hand him a significant slice of younger, white, progressive Democratic voters in a majority Democratic city to a Democratic candidate.
That doesn’t bode well for Robert Blackmon, Welch’s Republican challenger in the Nov. 2 election. Though the mayoral election is officially nonpartisan, votes tend to fall along party lines.
Welch won 39.4 percent of votes in the primary. Blackmon came away with 28.3 percent. And Rice — to no one’s surprise, not even her own — fell short with 16.6 percent of the vote.
Her distant third place finish is consistent with polling that placed her around winning 13 to 17 percent of the vote, according to retired University of South Florida St. Petersburg politics professor Darryl Paulson.
But some wonder what happened behind the scenes of a campaign that got a head start, fundraised three quarters of a million dollars and then went negative against a fellow Democrat — and what’s next for Rice.
‘It just wasn’t the time for me’
Before the Aug. 24 primary results came in, Rice had accepted that she probably wouldn’t make it to the runoff. All the term-limited City Council member said she wanted was a strong third place finish.
She said she was actually relieved, because two Democrats in the general election meant attracting “these fervent anti-Ken people” — not the coalition she had in mind.
“I definitely believe in working with both parties. I believe in the seat being nonpartisan,” Rice said. “But the elections do become partisan. In order to win and to win with so much Republican support that would’ve been necessary, it just would’ve been odd.”
She said there were political headwinds from her own party, and those forces wanted Welch, who if elected would become the city’s first Black mayor.
“It just wasn’t the time for me,” she said. “Even being a woman, even being a lesbian. That wasn’t the zeitgeist going on. How do we truly address equity and racist policies and how do we turn the page and move forward? I think a lot of people thought this was Ken’s time.”
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Pinellas Democratic Party Chairwoman Lucinda Johnston said she hoped the general election would come down to Welch vs. Rice, a win for the Democrats either way. But she said many Democrats took issue with the way Rice conducted herself.
Rice endorsed Blackmon for City Council in 2019. Then came several mailers that compared Welch to Donald Trump, which Johnston said was offensive to a Democrat with 20 years of public service.
“Her party felt like she turned against them,” Johnston said. “The thing that I heard a lot is she forgot what color her jersey is.”
Rice calls those mailers against Welch, “a huge mistake, adding: “If I could go back in time and correct it, I would.”
But she doesn’t think that’s why she lost. Rice’s allyship with departing Mayor Rick Kriseman, whom she defended in the midst of the 2016-17 sewage crisis and campaigned for his re-election, went south after she began fundraising in 2019 for her mayoral run. Kriseman endorsed Welch about a month before the primary election.
“By doing that, you’re in essence almost lame ducking the position (of mayor),” Kriseman said. “You’re telling people we need to be focused on the next election. You start trying to focus people’s attention on another campaign that’s … 3½ years away. It’s distracting and I didn’t think it was a positive for the city.”
Rice’s council term ends this year. She said she plans to take a breather from politics but continues to talk with Welch. She brought up how Clinton served as secretary of state under President Obama after the two clashed at debates in the 2008 democratic presidential primary.
“I felt like in this race that I may not win, but if I can bring issues like she did and make a lasting change that way, I am more than happy to play that role,” Rice said. “I am more than happy to feel like that is a worthy contribution even if I don’t win. And maybe that’s why women are different.”
Blackmon said Rice’s endorsement of Welch was, “disappointing, but it doesn’t change anything strategically.”
“She’s still my friend and I still will reach out to anyone for information and for advice and for ideas,” he said. “That’s how you build an inclusive community and St. Pete for all. Just because someone doesn’t support you doesn’t mean her ideas aren’t valuable. Once I’m elected mayor, everyone’s viewpoints will have a home.”
Former state representative and St. Petersburg council member Wengay Newton came in fourth in the mayoral primary with 7.5 percent, or 4,128 votes. He’s meeting with the remaining candidates but hasn’t made an endorsement. He told the Times he may sit the race out, though he says he has received calls from voters asking him who they should vote for.
As for Darden’s endorsement of Welch, “It’ll definitely get (him) some votes. ... But then again will he get 100 percent of those votes? They voted for her for a reason.”