ST. PETERSBURG — In 2008, Ken Welch was in support of a Pinellas County ordinance to protect gays, lesbians and bisexuals, but was in favor of a “balance” that included exemptions for religious groups.
A St. Petersburg Times story reported that Welch, a county commissioner, belonged to a conservative church that condemns homosexuality and that he shared the values of his church. Still, even then, Welch said his religious beliefs shouldn’t interfere with residents and their access to housing or a job.
In 1995, days before he turned 31, Welch wrote a letter to the editor in the Times in which he called the National Organization for Women a “far political left” group. In regards to “homosexuality and abortion,” he wrote that he was part of the “so-called Christian Right” who interpret the Bible as being “clearly pro-family and pro-life.”
In his bid to become the next mayor of St. Petersburg, Welch now has endorsements from groups he once opposed: the National Organization of Women, Equality Florida and Stonewall Democrats. Excerpts from his past letters to the editor and quotes as an elected official have circulated on social media. Though they represent a fraction of the 10 letters Welch wrote the Times between 1991 and 2021, the excerpts revisit past positions that are inconsistent with a candidate whose slogan is “#Progress.”
“Let’s just say I was more conservative at that time,” Welch told the Times. “And life experience should teach you things and educate you. And I’ve been educated to some of those realities.”
Reached by the Times about Welch’s previous comments, the National Organization of Women, Equality Florida and Stonewall Democrats stood by their endorsements and pointed to how left-leaning politicians like President Barack Obama once opposed gay marriage. They believe Welch, now 57, has changed, too.
The same year the Times reported Welch supported exemptions from the county’s human rights ordinance, Florida voters banned same-sex marriage and civil unions. And then-St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker refused to recognize the city’s annual Pride parade.
Welch said he was not in favor of government sanctions that would prevent a woman from making her own choice, and that his views have differed from his church’s. He said he no longer attends the church that condemned homosexuality. Last weekend, he participated in the St. Petersburg Bans off our Bodies march with his two daughters.
“I’ve never shared the value of discriminating against anyone,” Welch said. “When you talk about values of the church, to me it’s as simple as the Ten Commandments. I don’t share any value of discrimination and I never have.”
Welch faces Robert Blackmon in the Nov. 2 general election. In August, Blackmon’s old Facebook posts from his early and mid-20s were shared on Facebook by detractors. They referred to women as “bitch” and a 3-year-old as a “slut.” Blackmon said the vulgar and disparaging remarks about women, Asians and tenants “do not reflect who I am today, what I stand for or how I will conduct myself as St. Petersburg’s next mayor.”
The Pinellas County National Organization of Women endorsed Welch over Blackmon. Elections committee chair Ruth Whitney said she was unaware of Welch’s past comments.
Whitney said Welch filled out a questionnaire that showed he agreed with all six of NOW’s core issues, including equality for women, LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights. She mentioned Obama’s changed position.
“That may explain why Welch said that,” Whitney said. “I trust what he said to us now.”
The Stonewall Democrats passed up endorsing Darden Rice, a Democrat who is openly gay, in the mayoral primary. The group’s president, Paul Ray, said he’s heard about Welch’s past comments but weighed them against Blackmon’s controversial Facebook posts.
Ray points to votes taken by Welch that created a domestic partnership registry and securing money from the BP oil spill settlement for LGBTQ health care.
“People have had and may have said things in the past and learned,” Ray said. “And people do evolve intellectually. I’ve known Ken for a while and I’ve never known Ken to be anything but upstanding and honest with me.”
“What they’ve done I think speaks louder than what they may have said,” he added.
Rice finished third in the mayoral primary and has since endorsed Welch. She said her campaign was “aware that he was not the LGBTQ champion all through the years that he portrayed himself to be” and thought there would be more time to scrutinize his record.
“I think Ken deserves the chance to explain to the public how he has evolved on LGBTQ issues,” Rice said. “I think he understands he needs to be accountable to what were once passionate views he held.”
Equality Florida endorsed Rice in the primary and endorsed Welch for the general election. Executive director Nadine Smith said she was aware of Welch’s past comments, but pointed to how his speech was the turning point on updating the human rights ordinance to be fully inclusive of the LGBT community.
“When it comes to where a candidate stands, we care how they vote,” she said. “The folks who support Equality Florida come from diverse backgrounds, but at the end of the day, did you stand up for equality and vote to end discrimination? Not only did Ken do that, I would say he really has been a champion.”
Smith said Welch is the reason her organization exists.
“He’s somebody who was not familiar with the community (and) held ideas that came from not having those relationships,” she said. “He actively sought to understand. Many of our parents and siblings and friends have taken the journey to come from not knowing and not relating to empathy and support.”
“People evolve and I’m happy when they do,” she said.