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On the eve of St. Petersburg’s election, mayoral candidates appear at 2 very different events

Ken Welch appeared with other local politicians at a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway with Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Robert Blackmon spoke at a “Blexit” event.
St. Petersburg, mayoral candidate, Robert Blackmon addresses a crowd gathered for a Blexit rally held outside at the Child’s Park Recreation Center in  St. Petersburg on Monday evening November 1, 2021.
St. Petersburg, mayoral candidate, Robert Blackmon addresses a crowd gathered for a Blexit rally held outside at the Child’s Park Recreation Center in St. Petersburg on Monday evening November 1, 2021. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]
Published Nov. 2, 2021|Updated Nov. 2, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — On the eve of Election Day, St. Petersburg mayoral candidates Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon wrapped up their campaigns at events that were a short drive apart.

Politically, though, the events were much further apart than that.

Welch stood by as NBA Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson gave away free Thanksgiving turkeys to hundreds of residents gathered in the Tropicana Field parking lot. City Council hopefuls Mhariel Summers and Richie Floyd also were there to campaign in front of a bustling crowd on a bright Monday afternoon. Earlier, Johnson held a private meet-and-greet with Welch and other local officials.

Three miles away in Childs Park, Blackmon spoke at the “Blexit 727 Block Party,” a movement trying to convince Black voters to exit the Democratic party. There were American flags and shirts that said “Think while it’s still legal” and “Liberals can’t bully me.” Some flew “Let’s Go, Brandon” flags, a right-wing code to insult President Joe Biden.

“I’m sorry we’re not going to be able to bribe you with turkeys, but we have great ideas,” said Republican Anna Paulina Luna, who is running for the 13th Congressional District seat in 2022.

Other speakers also made references to the turkey-giveaway event at the Trop, sometimes calling it a “handout.”

The Childs Park event kicked off with a prayer from speakers who described themselves as ebony and ivory. One implied that Democrats were the “anti-biblical party that goes against the ways of God” and also thanked God for Luna.

The emcee reminded the crowd that Blexit is a nonpartisan event that does not endorse candidates. Still, speakers continued to criticize the Democratic Party and touted the city’s GOP candidates in Tuesday’s races, including Blackmon.

The crowd outside the Childs Park Recreation Center grew to about 150, but remained predominantly white in a predominantly Black neighborhood. There were tents for conservative organizations such as Turning Point USA, Community Patriots of Pinellas County and the St. Petersburg Republican Club. Also in attendance was District 4 candidate Tom Mullins.

“I believe the majority of people here didn’t vote for Trump or didn’t vote Republican,” said T. Morris, 41, a registered Democrat and Childs Park resident who stopped by to check out the event on her way to the gym inside. “I don’t feel like this is appropriate.”

She added: “To me it doesn’t matter what you prefer to be, Democrat or Republican, that’s your business. But this right here doesn’t sound like togetherness and positivity. It sounds like division to me.”

Diane A., a 65-year-old Childs Park resident, came to see Blackmon speak. She said she doesn’t know who she’ll vote for Tuesday. She supported former mayor Rick Baker, a Republican, when he was elected in 2001 and served two terms. Under him, she said, people felt united.

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“Welch just started campaigning in the community,” she said of the former county commissioner. “He never did much for us.”

Other Blexit speakers leaned on conservative culture-war talking points about abortion, school choice and critical race theory — subjects that have not come up in St. Petersburg’s elections. Critical race theory isn’t taught in any Florida school, according to Jacob Oliva, the public school chancellor for the Florida Department of Education.

In his speech, Blackmon said the media was making a big deal of him speaking at Blexit. He went on to talk about drug addiction and crime in south St. Petersburg, with the city on track to break a record for most homicides.

Right before his sign-off, Blackmon said, “Don’t let people in the media say this is a fringe group.”

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