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Two political veterans vie for Ken Welch’s Pinellas commission seat

School Board member Rene Flowers and former lawmaker Frank Peterman Jr. have filed to run. Both also spent time on the St. Petersburg City Council.

Rene Flowers and Frank Peterman Jr. have been patient.

For years, the St. Petersburg-born community leaders and longtime Democratic figures have been eyeing the District 7 Pinellas County Commission seat while talk swirled of longtime incumbent Ken Welch eventually leaving the post to run for St. Petersburg mayor.

Recently, the door swung wide open for the November 2020 commission election after Welch privately confirmed to the commission hopefuls his decision not to seek another term. His plan to run for mayor was official.

“It is my intent to run for mayor, but I haven’t been out campaigning because I think I have to focus on the job I have for the next year,” said Welch, whose fifth commission term ends next year.

RELATED: Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch could likely run for St. Petersburg mayor in 2021

On Tuesday, Flowers, a sitting Pinellas County School Board member and former St. Petersburg City Council member, filed her intent to run for District 7. Peterman, a former state representative and Department of Juvenile Justice secretary who also served on the St. Petersburg City Council, filed his paperwork earlier this year for the seat.

Welch said he will not make an endorsement in the Democratic primary because of his close association with both candidates. “They are both more than qualified,” he said.

Ken Welch, the long-time Pinellas County Commissioner, plans to run for St. Petersburg Mayor, clearing his commission seat for other political veterans.
Ken Welch, the long-time Pinellas County Commissioner, plans to run for St. Petersburg Mayor, clearing his commission seat for other political veterans. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Of the four commission seats on the 2020 ballot, Welch’s district is the only one that will not feature an incumbent. So far, no Republicans have filed to run for District 7, according to Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections records. But with the open seat, more Democrats are likely to jump in.

State Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, who is eligible to serve two more terms in the Florida House, said he’s considering a run for commission but is “not going to say no to any option.”

“It’s one of the options,” Newton said, referring to the commission seat. “The mayor’s office is open also.”

Former St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse also said he has not ruled out a run for commission, mostly to advocate for affordable housing and transportation.

“Truthfully, I’ve enjoyed life after public office, so I think the odds are I will not run, but I’m chewing on it,” Nurse said.

District 1 Commissioner Janet Long and District 3 Commissioner Charlie Justice have filed paperwork to run for re-election. They have so far not drawn any challengers.

District 5 Commissioner Karen Seel confirmed she intends to run for re-election, although she has not yet filed paperwork with the Supervisor of Elections office. She has drawn no challengers so far.

Flowers, 55, who has served on the School Board since 2012, has made a name for herself as an active community steward, with stints on many boards, from the YMCA of Greater Tampa Bay to the National Council of Negro Women.

She said she is driven to run for the County Commission to push for affordable housing and economic development, two focal points of hers when she served on the City Council from 1999 to 2008. Flowers also served as president of the Florida League of Cities in 2006, where she launched a task force to provide municipalities with information and education on affordable housing.

“I consistently worked in this area,” Flowers said. “When I left City Council, I didn’t leave the genre. That was my passion and my heart. I remained focused on it.”

After three years on the City Council, Peterman, 57, went on to serve in the Florida House from 2000 to 2008. He became known as an advocate for criminal sentencing diversion and youth empowerment, especially for African American boys.

His work in the Legislature was marked by his advocacy on criminal justice reform and farm workers’ rights, including a law that banned employers from taking money from workers’ paychecks to cover basic job essentials.

In 2008, he was appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist to serve as the secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice. But his two years on the job were tinged by his use of taxpayer dollars to travel between Tallahassee and his home in St. Petersburg. The state Commission on Ethics in 2012 issued a Peterman a reprimand and a $5,000 fine.

Since leaving that post, Peterman has focused on community outreach through his job as pastor of The Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church. He said he’s driven to return to public office to help expand resources in south St. Petersburg and fight for affordable housing.

“People stop me and say ‘We need you back,’” Peterman said. “Even this morning at Walmart, buying bread, (someone asked) ‘You’re getting back in, right?’”