ST. PETERSBURG — History was made Tuesday night.
Sixty years ago, Black police officers in St. Petersburg couldn’t patrol white neighborhoods. Black residents couldn’t sit on iconic green benches featured in postcards unless they were caring for white children.
Now, the city has elected its first Black mayor in Ken Welch, first Hispanic City Council member in Lisset Hanewicz and first Democratic Socialist — not just locally, but in the state’s recent history — and first Black City Council member north of Central Avenue in Richie Floyd. It’s also the first time there will be three Black members on Council.
“It’s a sign of progress, and at the end of the day there has to be impact from all this history,” Welch said Wednesday.
They’re all Democrats, as the party swept the 2021 St. Petersburg general municipal election. Copley Gerdes won the District 1 seat, defeating Bobbie Shay Lee. The party also held on to Districts 4, 6 and 8.
In a state where Gov. Ron DeSantis may be the Republican presidential nominee in 2024, that didn’t translate into victory for St. Petersburg Republicans. In fact, they lost ground.
Robert Blackmon’s defeat not only quashed Republican hopes of installing a Rick Baker acolyte back in City Hall, but his mayoral run took him off the Council midway through his first term. Chair Ed Montanari will now be the sole Republican in a council of eight.
The spokesman for outgoing Mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, tweeted that every candidate endorsed by Kriseman won their race. Kriseman stayed away from making an endorsement in District 8 — Floyd’s race — but gave his campaign kudos.
For the mayor’s race, the greatest indication of how a neighborhood would vote was its partisanship. In precincts where at least 70 percent of voters are Democrats, Welch won 90 percent of the vote. In lighter-blue areas, he won 63 percent.
Where there are more Republican voters than Democrats, Welch garnered just 44 percent of the vote.
Welch said it’s not about partisanship but issue-based campaigns.
“I think message matters, and I think candidates matter,” he said. “And both have to be compelling.”
But Welch said being of the same political party helps in City Hall when everyone has the same priorities.
“I think we’re pretty much going to be on the same page on where we want to go, how we handle coastal high hazards or affordable housing or public safety,” he said.
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“The proof is going to be on how we get things done to move this city forward,” Welch continued. “It shows how far St. Pete has come, and I think folks are looking for engaged representation and they want us to make due on our promises.”
Turnout fell short of the city’s last mayoral election, with Tuesday’s rate of 34 percent three points lower than 2017′s high-profile runoff following a razor-thin primary.
Among the council races, Floyd’s campaign was a political bellwether. He had the best showing of any candidate on the ballot in the August primary, dominating with 52 percent of the vote. Many wondered how a professed democratic socialist would fare citywide against former council member Jeff Danner, an independent.
The race was neck-and-neck until late mail ballots were counted just before 10 p.m., avoiding a recount. Floyd finished with 50.7 percent, winning by 833 votes.
Dismay with President Joe Biden and national Democrats as well as Republican talking points like critical race theory, masks in schools and vaccines threatened his campaign, Floyd said.
“We started to get a lot more pushback on those things at the end,” Floyd said. “Just polarization on national issues.”
Floyd is the first Black candidate in 15 years to win a primary and then defeat a white opponent in the citywide runoff, according to research by the Southern Poverty Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union. The issue was at the heart of the discussion about proposed City Charter Amendment 1, which would’ve replaced city-wide voting for Council races with a single-member system.
The amendment failed Tuesday, with 58.7 percent of the electorate voting no. More voters cast a vote on that measure than on any single council race. Every district would have voted it down, but the opposition was strongest in whiter, more-Republican neighborhoods.
Gerdes benefited from the citywide race Tuesday, as he finished second in his own District 1, which voted for Republicans in all but one race. Gerdes trailed Lee by about 7 points in the area but was able to make up the gap outside it.
Every other proposed City Charter amendment also failed except 5 and 6, which establish new requirements for city administrative jobs and resolve a scheduling conflict between the city’s charter-review process and its redistricting process, respectively.
Floyd said he was dismayed that charter amendments 3 and 4, which would address equity — an integral part of his campaign platform — failed.
However, he said he doesn’t believe partisan politics will play into council member’s votes once inaugurated.
“You have people on council voting with the other party all the time,” Floyd said. “I don’t know that that really matters much. What matters more is the relationship we all have together and how we work together.”