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Robert Blackmon, Ken Welch face off in St. Petersburg mayoral debate

Welch, the 57-year-old former Pinellas County commissioner, and Blackmon, a 32-year-old City Council member, debated the city’s top issues.
Published Oct. 19, 2021|Updated Oct. 20, 2021

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St. Petersburg mayoral hopefuls Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon debated some of the city’s top issues and took multiple shots at each other’s records in a heated Tuesday night debate, two weeks before Election Day.

Welch, a 57-year-old former Pinellas County commissioner, and Blackmon, a 32-year-old City Council member, discussed racial equity, policing, affordable housing and the future of the Tampa Bay Rays.

The role of race in the city and policing kicked off the debate. If elected, Welch would be the city’s first Black mayor. He spoke about having two youth summits this past summer, as the city hit 13 homicides. St. Petersburg has now had 28 homicides, a near-record number in a year for the city — and Welch emphasized the importance of city officials being present in the community, and how as Mayor he would be there to talk about how the community cam move forward.

Blackmon said in the short term, the city needs more police officers on the street. He said the long-term focus should be on economic opportunity.

“We need accountability and we need more options, because somebody who is not desperate does not commit a murder,” Blackmon said.

Welch refuted Blackmon’s claim that reopening the Science Center of Pinellas County, an educational center near the Tyrone Mall in west St. Pete, was an example of that kind of economic opportunity. Welch said it’s miles outside of the neighborhoods where violence is happening and there isn’t a solid plan to get the children there.

“I want to build opportunity in the community where the problems are happening,” Welch said.

When it came to policing, both expressed support for the St. Petersburg Police Department and for funding it. Welch mentioned he also supported community work, such as his efforts to help the homeless to avoid criminalization. When asked a hypothetical question on how each would react as mayor if a white police officer shot a Black teenager and protests began, both said they would speak with police and city officials.

Blackmon brought up the 2020 protests and said the police force needed to be applauded for its work under adverse circumstances. He criticized outgoing Mayor Rick Kriseman, who endorsed Welch. Blackmon said Kriseman coerced Police Chief Anthony Holloway into taking a knee during the protests. Welch called the comment demeaning to Holloway.

During a portion of the debate where viewers asked about affordable housing, both candidates mentioned wanting to expand NTM-1, a housing code that allows for more multifamily housing such as duplexes and garage apartments. Welch said the permitting process need to be improved and touted his experience creating the housing trust fund. The fund provides a financial source for affordable housing projects in the city, addressing high-need areas.

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Blackmon, who touted his private-sector experience developing affordable housing, said he wants to see a city-backed mortgage program to increase homeownership among the middle and lower-income residents in St. Petersburg.

“Affordable housing should not be a NIMBY (not in my back yard) issue where it’s pushed to certain neighborhoods only and we protect the chosen few,” Blackmon said. “Everyone deserves a home in St. Petersburg, and I fought on Council to protect that.”

Blackmon and Welch were both asked what they think of adjusting development restrictions in flood-prone areas to allow for high density housing. One such initiative has been promoted by the Florida Realtors. Both supported it. Blackmon said he led the push for it in the City Council, which did vote to allow the development. Welch said the initiative must compliment an implemented infrastructure plan to fix sewer systems, which needs federal money.

By allowing more dense construction in the costal high hazard areas, Blackmon said it avoids pushing new development inland into typically Black communities and gentrifying them.

When later asked about how to maintain St. Petersburg’s charm and arts community, Welch circled back to the importance of affordable housing.

“What I’m really concerned about is preserving the ability for the folks who make our city work, their ability to be able to continue to stay here,” Welch said.

Some topics only briefly addressed in the debate were covered at length in an earlier primary debate hosted by the Times and Spectrum Bay News 9, like how to handle the Rays and Tropicana Field. Welch, whose family was displaced by the construction of Tropicana Field in the 1980s, said promises to make right by the Black community affected by the initial construction must be a key focus in redevelopment talks.

Blackmon is firmly against a split season and wants the Rays in St. Petersburg, and he said he hopes a plan can be created so that the Rays and the Tampa Bay Rowdies share a stadium.

Throughout the debate, they traded barbs.

Blackmon criticized Welch for his lengthy political career, saying Welch’s run for mayor was the move of a career politician. He also criticized Welch’s prior conservative views and said Welch was not a friend to the LGBTQ community at the time.

Welch brought up social media posts that Blackmon had made that included disparaging remarks about women and where Blackmon had made light of evicting tenants from properties on which he was working.

Both candidates have acknowledged their past comments and said they’ve evolved since then.

They criticized money the other had brought in from campaign donations. Blackmon criticized Welch for getting thousands of dollars from developers, while Welch criticized Blackmon for taking a donation from a group actively evicting tenants in the city. Both candidates have gotten money from developers. Overall, Welch has raised twice of what Blackmon has raised in total contributions.

“I will not ever sell out St. Pete, period, not for an election, not for a dollar,” Blackmon said. “That’s why I’ve been out-fundraised.”

But Welch said he was outraised in the primary by former competitor Darden Rice, and he did what he had to do to be competitive — but that people know he will be accountable to voters.

“Folks can look at my track record of doing the right things,” Welch said.

In the August primary, Welch got about 39 percent of the vote and Blackmon got about 28 percent of the vote in a field with eight candidates. The general election is Nov. 2, and it will include four City Council elections and eight questions along with the mayoral race.


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