ST. PETERSBURG — Now that the national campaign season is over, a local one is just beginning: 2021 is an election year in the Sunshine City.
Four City Council seats are on the ballot, with two members being forced to leave because of term limits. But the most high profile, expensive and contentious race will surely be for mayor.
After eight years in office, Mayor Rick Kriseman is term-limited, meaning it’s the first time in three election cycles there is not an incumbent seeking that office. While all city elections are technically nonpartisan, some recent elections, particularly Kriseman’s defeat of former Mayor Rick Baker in 2017, have been bitterly partisan.
Already, the mayor’s race has some heavyweights, but so far at least, all the candidates are registered Democrats.
Whoever gets elected will help decide some major issues for St. Petersburg, such as the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site that’s already underway and the future of the Tampa Bay Rays. The city is also facing challenges on equity, affordable housing and transportation, all while trying to recover from and grow following the coronavirus pandemic.
Mayor and council terms are four years, with two-term limits. The primary election is Aug. 24. In the mayor’s race, if a candidate receives a majority of the vote in the primary, he or she is duly elected. If no candidate exceeds 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will advance to a Nov. 2 general election.
City Council races work differently. Candidates first run within their districts. The top two candidates in the primary, regardless of their share of the vote, advance to a city-wide general election.
Four people have entered to run for mayor, including a number of well-known candidates.
Two-term City Council member Darden Rice, 50, filed her paperwork Jan. 12. She entered the race having already raised more than $220,000 through her political action committee, Friends of Darden Rice — more than anyone else, making her the early frontrunner. She was the first openly gay person to run for city office, losing a City Council bid in 2005. She ran again successfully in 2013 and was reelected four years later.
She was previously president of the League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area and currently serves as chair on Forward Pinellas, the county’s land use and transportation agency and on the board of Tampa Bay Water. An advocate for the environment while on City Council, Rice founded a council committee on health, energy, resilience and sustainability.
If elected, her top priority include overseeing the city’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, creating equitable growth and affordable housing, protecting the environment, expanding transit, developing the Tropicana Field site and improving infrastructure. She also announced a first-term goal of universal pre-kindergarten and community college.
Rice is entering her eighth and final year on council.
“I think that as St. Pete grows, the big question is how do we make St. Pete better for all of us,” she said.
Former five-term Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch formally entered the race Jan. 15 after years of speculation he would run. The son of a former City Council member and a former accountant for 14 years at Florida Power Corp. (now Duke Energy Florida), Welch, 56, is a third generation St. Petersburg native.
Welch used his seat on the County Commission to champion equity, specifically advocating for the creation of the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, which is raising money in the city’s poorest neighborhoods to fight poverty.
In some ways, his priorities align with Rice’s: guiding the city through the pandemic recovery and ensuring the city continues to meet its commitments to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to improve its wastewater system. Beyond that, he said he wants to honor the history of the Gas Plant District, torn down to make way for Tropicana Field, in the site’s redevelopment. He wants to see the city’s bus rapid transit initiative come to fruition, address affordable housing and refocus the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area to fight poverty.
“We should have a community where every neighborhood feels that they are invested in our progress, that they benefit from our progress, and that they are not displaced by our progress,” Welch said.
Welch has raised more than $58,000 through his political action committee, Pelican PAC. After 20 years on the Commission, Welch chose not to seek a sixth term last year.
Wengay Newton, 57, who served two terms on St. Petersburg City Council before serving two terms in the Florida House of Representatives, last month filed to run for mayor. A St. Petersburg native, Newton last year decided to forgo running for a third House term, instead vying for the seat Welch was leaving on the Pinellas County Commission. He lost in the primary.
Newton has previously advocated for using tax credits, the Penny for Pinellas sales tax and block grants to help alleviate poverty. He has also sided with Republicans; for example, he is a strong advocate for steering public money into private school vouchers.
Newton said his connections and relationships after 12 years serving in the city and Tallahassee will be critical. He also emphasized the need to keep water rates low, particularly for residents on fixed incomes.
“I’m born and raised here,” Newton said. “I know exactly what needs to be done.”
Newton has raised $500, according to the most recent campaign filing.
Michael Ingram, 20, is a political science student at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. In February he filed to run for the District 2 City Council seat before switching to the mayor’s race in October. He said he’s running to be a candidate young people might be excited to vote for, and to show that young candidates can succeed.
His priorities are to keep St. Petersburg from being overrun by chain businesses, address housing affordability and homelessness, and invest in infrastructure. He also wants to create a youth government, whereby kids would elect youth council members and a mayor who would draft policy for the City Council to consider.
“Of course, I am trying to win, and not just show up and get a participation trophy for young people,” Ingram said, “but actually get representation for young people.”
Ingram has raised just over $1,500, according to the most recent filing.
So far nobody has filed to run in District 2, which is the northernmost district in the city, extending from Weedon Island north to Feather Sound.
Incumbent Brandi Gabbard, 44, said she plans to run reelection but has not yet submitted her paperwork. Gabbard, a real estate agent and former chair of the Pinellas Realtor Organization board, declined to discuss her agenda or priorities until after she formally files. She has prioritized affordable housing issues through her first term.
Two candidates have filed in the race for District 4, which includes the Historic Old Northeast and St. Anthony’s Hospital on the southern end and extends north, hugging the east side of Interstate 275, until 77th Avenue N. The seat is currently occupied by Darden Rice, who is term limited and running for mayor.
Both candidates are relative newcomers to local politics.
Clifford Hobbs III, 40, a native Iowan, former chef in Atlanta and now a bartender at the Birch & Vine on Beach Drive, said he was inspired by the summer protest marches in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. The protesters’ frequent presence on Beach Drive was often the catalyst of conversations with his patrons — people who often didn’t look or think like Hobbs, who is Black and gay. If Hobbs could bridge that gap with his regulars, he said, maybe he could too with city voters.
“Wanting to represent a district that is majority white, I knew that it would be a struggle getting people to vote for me,” he said. “But I knew through my profession, working (with) and serving people, that I would be able to win them over.”
His priorities include improving road conditions and limiting flooding and helping the city’s service industry rebound from the pandemic. He also promised to run a “local” campaign, meaning at least 80 percent of his campaign expenditures will be spent with St. Petersburg-based small businesses.
Wendy Wesley, 49, is a St. Petersburg native, dietician and small business owner. She worked in nonprofit social services agencies before becoming a clinical dietitian at St. Anthony’s Hospital. Now she owns and runs Wendy Wesley Nutrition, a nutrition counseling company, and she’s a food policy activist. She became active publicly in 2018, when she began speaking and writing about food policy within the city, highlighting issues including unequal access to food and food deserts.
“A lot of people were absolutely floored that there wasn’t a Publix across the street from a Publix in every neighborhood,” she said.
Her campaign is based around the concept of health equity, which include “all the social determinants of health, like affordable housing, access to transportation, clean water, safe streets,” she said. She also wants St. Petersburg to keep its local feel and to protect the environment.
Hobbs has raised more than $7,000 so far and has spent more than $5,000, according to campaign finance reports. Wesley has raised nearly $5,000 and has hardly spent any of it.
District 6 is one of the most diverse council districts in the city, covering all of downtown and extending south through Campbell Park and Coquina Key all the way to Bay Vista Park in Pinellas Point.
Incumbent Gina Driscoll has filed to run for reelection; she does not yet face an opponent.
Driscoll, 49, a Dade City native, was president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association before she won the District 6 seat in 2017, has been an advocate for affordable housing and the environment while on City Council, leading the way on the city’s plastic straw ban.
Her priorities in her second term include expanding transportation options; overseeing development of the Trop site; finishing the city’s long term vision document, St. Pete 2050; and fully recovering from the pandemic — which she said means supporting small businesses and creating living-wage jobs.
“I want to continue the progress that we’ve made so far. We’ve accomplished a lot but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Driscoll’s political action committee, Friends of Gina Driscoll, has raised more than $57,000.
So far only one candidate has filed to replace City Council member Amy Foster, who is term limited, in District 8, which covers neighborhoods east and west of 34th Street north of Fifth Avenue N.
Richmond Floyd, 29, who goes by Richie, a Fort Walton Beach native, moved into St. Petersburg in 2018 to work for Honeywell before becoming a middle school science and engineering teacher in 2019 — though he took leave this school year due to health concerns related to COVID-19. Floyd has been civically active, volunteering and recruiting in favor of last year’s successful constitutional amendment to raise the Florida’s minimum wage to $15. He also organized last summer in support of the St. Petersburg Police Department’s new community assistance liaison program, where social services workers will answer some nonviolent calls instead of officers.
His priorities include expanding workers rights in the city, specifically for shift workers and service workers who have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. He also wants to see more resources dedicated to public housing, expand transit, hold the city to its resilience and climate change goals and see through the implementation of the police department’s liaison program.
“I really want to use the race and potential council tenure to uplift the voices of the organizers across the city I’ve gotten to know,” Floyd said.
Floyd has raised nearly $12,000.