ST. PETERSBURG — It’s been pretty quiet, but there is an election on Nov. 2.
Voters in St. Petersburg will decide between two candidates for mayor: Robert Blackmon and Ken Welch. It’s the first open mayoral race since 2009, and whoever wins will serve a four-year term. Also on the ballot are four City Council races (you can read about those here, here, here and here) and eight questions (read about the first city charter amendment here).
These races are is non-partisan, but votes tend to fall along party lines. Welch is a Democrat and Blackmon is a Republican. Welch has raised and spent twice as much as Blackmon’s campaign.
So, who are Welch and Blackmon? And where do they stand on the issues facing St. Petersburg?
The following answers were sourced from several community forums and debates and through questionnaires and interviews with the Tampa Bay Times.
Who is Ken Welch?
Welch, 57, is a five-term Pinellas County Commissioner. He was born and raised in St. Petersburg and is the son of the first Black male St. Petersburg City Council member, David Welch. His family was among those in the Gas Plant neighborhood who were displaced by the construction of Tropicana Field.
Welch graduated from Lakewood High and earned degrees from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and Florida A&M University. He is married with two daughters. He is the perceived frontrunner in this race as the top vote-getter in the August primary with 39.4 percent. If elected, he would be the city’s first Black mayor.
His political action committee, Pelican PAC, has raised $550,881 since 2019. He has endorsements from outgoing mayor Rick Kriseman, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Tampa mayor Jane Castor, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D - St. Petersburg) and five out of eight members on the City Council.
Who is Robert Blackmon?
Blackmon, 32, is a current City Council member for District 1 and was elected for the first time in 2019. He too was born and raised in St. Petersburg, graduating from St. Petersburg High and earning a degree from Florida State University.
Blackmon is single and is a real estate investor. If elected, he would be the city’s first millennial mayor. He came in second place in the August primary with 28.3 percent of the vote.
Blackmon is endorsed by former St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker, Pinellas County Commissioner Kathleen Peters, Florida state Sen. Jeff Brandes (R - St. Petersburg) and Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls (R - Palm Harbor).
Tropicana Field and the Tampa Bay Rays
The age-old question is back for another mayoral cycle. What to do about the 86 acres of prime downtown St. Petersburg real estate? With the Rays eyeing a spot in Ybor City, flirting with a split season in Montreal and a looming lease expiration date of 2027, it’s the biggest question in the race.
Welch has said that the Rays are secondary to making good on promises never fulfilled when residents of the Gas Plant community were displaced. He’s focused on jobs and equitable economic development, and he’s in favor of a split season and a stadium at the current location or at Al Lang Field — or even in Tampa.
“I’m willing to let them look in Tampa and make a decision,” Welch said.
The Rays donated $50,000 to Welch’s political action committee, which matches what the team gave mayor Rick Kriseman in his 2017 re-election bid. Asked at a WFLA debate how that donation will not affect his influence, Welch said his priority is jobs and equitable gain for the area. “It has to be a fair deal to the city of St. Pete and the taxpayers,” he said.
Calling a split season “crazy,” Blackmon wants to keep the Rays in St. Petersburg, a stance that is aligned with the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. But he’s aware of the “harsh realities” evolving on that site.
“I still hold out hope that we can have a shared stadium with the Rowdies and the Rays on the end of the site,” Blackmon said, “I’m losing hope on that.”
Both candidates are on board for increasing density and expanding NTM-1, a housing code for Neighborhood Traditional Mixed Residential. It’s an upzoning that allows for more garage apartments, duplexes and smaller dwellings — more affordable housing.
Blackmon wants to institute a city-backed mortgage program. He also wants to revamp vintage built condos for affordable housing, since they’d be cheaper than building new.
Welch touts his experience on the county commission creating the housing trust fund and chairing a homeless policy group. He says he wants to focus on housing for those making $19 an hour and less.
Welch says climate change needs to factor into infrastructure and density decisions. He said the City Council already has an integrated sustainability action plan in place, but it needs to be funded and implemented. He says he’d also do an energy assessment of city facilities.
“We’re going to listen to the science,” Welch said of a climate compact he helped form in Tampa Bay.
Blackmon says “smart, low hanging fruit” like vertical oyster gardens and oyster domes could prolong life of sea walls. He also champions his Science Center project to educate youth about climate change.
In coastal high hazard areas, he voted to increase density to allow for buildings to be storm hardened. Not allowing developers to use that land, Blackmon said, will mean they will look into the city’s traditionally Black neighborhoods, leading to “reverse redlining.”
What happened in Texas could take root in Florida. Texas recently passed a bill banning abortions after six weeks, and Florida’s Legislature is now working on its own “heartbeat bill.” On a recent Saturday, hundreds participated in a local Bans Off Our Bodies march in St. Petersburg, including Welch.
Welch says it’s a personal choice. He says the landmark Roe vs. Wade case “found a balance.”
“And there’s no reason to just unilaterally overturn that, especially when you’re talking about incest and rape,” Welch said. “I mean it’s just, we’ve, we’ve lost all sense of reality and reasonableness.”
Blackmon said he doesn’t want to speak on things he cannot enforce or enact. But as a City Council member, he does have a say in how the council spends $40 million in stimulus money. The Tampa Bay Abortion Fund is currently seeking $40,000.
Blackmon said he did not know about the Bans off our Bodies rally.
“One way or another, abortion is legal until there’s something else,” he said.
What about diversity, equity and inclusion?
Both candidates have had controversial past statements surface on social media.
In his 30s, Welch penned an op-ed where he said he was part of the “Christian Right” and interpreted the Bible as “clearly pro-family and pro-life.” In 2008, Welch said he shared the values of his conservative church that condemned homosexuality.
“My story is, in 25, 30 years, I’ve learned a lot,” Welch said. “I’ve become a very strong ally. I am a person of faith but my faith is not based on hatred. It never has been.”
In his 20s, Blackmon posted vulgar and disparaging remarks about women, Asians and tenants on Facebook. They referred to women as “bitch” and a 3-year-old as a “slut.”
“The past is the past and we need to learn from it all the time,” Blackmon said. “I’m not at all trying to make excuses. I own that and I apologize.”
Unlike Welch, who was in his 30s writing into the paper and being quoted as a county commissioner, Blackmon said he was “some young idiot writing dumb stuff on the internet.”
What historical person would they have dinner with?
The question was asked at a recent League of Women Voters forum hosted at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Blackmon chose Ross Perot, because he entered the 1992 U.S. presidential race late. He then took a swipe at Welch for mulling over a run for mayor for years.
Welch went with Jesus Christ, because “he learned to endure all the falsehoods and (Blackmon) just said several falsehoods.” Welch said he was previously asked to run and never said that he would.
What’s their favorite childhood memory of St. Pete?
For Blackmon, his happiest days were at St. Pete High, making friends and meeting friends of friends. He also enjoyed summer camps at Boyd Hill, Pathfinders, Great Explorations, the St. Petersburg Museum of History and the Science Center.
“Looking back, it was the greatest memories of my life,” he said at the WFLA debate. “I learned so much about our environment, our economy, how to make the world a better place and also I got to meet a lot of great people.”
Welch remembers learning how to swing an ax in his grandfather’s woodyard. “The first time someone gave me a tip, I didn’t know what to do,” he recalled. He remembers the last year of school segregation at Melrose Elementary. The next year, he was part of the first integrated class at Bay Point.
“Those are friendships that last to this day,” he said. “It was folks connecting in ways they hadn’t because we were coming out of segregation.”