Ken Welch backers in St. Pete mayor’s race include prominent Republicans

Recent endorsements have come from Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, Clerk of Court Ken Burke, former Sheriff Jim Coats, and former elections Supervisor Deborah Clark.
St. Petersburg mayoral candidate and former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch.
St. Petersburg mayoral candidate and former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times (2018) ]
Published March 19, 2021|Updated March 19, 2021

Is there a “conservative lane” open in the St. Petersburg mayor’s race, as some political insiders have speculated?

If so, Ken Welch may be moving to close it off, with a batch of endorsement announcements including several prominent Republicans and prominent businessman Scott Wagman.

Republicans Welch announced recently as endorsing him include Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, Clerk of Court Ken Burke, former Sheriff Jim Coats, former Property Appraiser Pam Dubov and former elections Supervisor Deborah Clark.

Welch also announced backing from former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, known as a conservative Democrat, mental health activist Martha Lenderman, Studio@620 founder Bob Devin Jones, and former state senator and Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg.

Wagman, who ran for mayor in 2009, and his wife Beth Houghton form a local power couple of entrepreneurs, civic activists and philanthropists. He said he considers both Welch and Welch’s top competitor Darden Rice to be strong candidates, but he gave Welch the edge because of broader experience in private business and as a county commissioner.

“It’s a tough choice — they’re both good people,” Wagman said. “The city will do well whichever one wins.”

Houghton, who’s CEO of the tax-funded county Juvenile Welfare Board, doesn’t take political stances, Wagman said.

With Rice and Welch, both Democrats, as the leading candidates, there’s been some speculation that there could be a path for a more conservative, business-friendly candidate in the race, and longstanding rumors of attempts to recruit one. Welch’s endorsements look like an attempt to pre-empt that possibility.

Hibbard said he chose to endorse Welch “regardless of whether a Republican comes into the race” because of Welch’s regional perspective as a former commissioner.

“I don’t believe most municipal decisions are that partisan, and I don’t care for partisan politics,” Hibbard said. “I don’t think he’s overly partisan and not overly parochial.”

Darden Rice staffs up

Rice, meanwhile, has hired new staff and started a field operation of door-knockers and phone canvassers — an unusually early start for grassroots field campaigning in a St. Petersburg mayoral race, her campaign says.

Rice has hired Conner Jure as organizing director and Miranda Colavito as finance director.

Mayoral candidate and St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice.
Mayoral candidate and St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice. [ Photo courtesy of Darden Rice ]

Jure, a St. Petersburg native, “helped flip Pinellas County blue as the Regional Organizing Director for the Florida Democratic Party in 2020,” Rice said in a press release, and did voter turnout work in the 2021 Georgia Senate race.

Colavito has worked on several Pinellas Democratic campaigns along with the Blue Ticket firm of Meagan Salisbury, Rice campaign manager.

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Salisbury said Rice has 30 active volunteers and 14 “fellows” — individuals working for the campaign to gain experience — who are doing field work and have contacted 19,821 voters with COVID-safe door knocking, phone calls and texts.

By comparison, she said, Mayor Rick Kriseman didn’t start field operations until at least April in both his elections, and his 2017 opponent Rick Baker started even later.

Rice maintains a significant lead in fundraising over Welch, and has also been spending more, including on salaries for the new hires and other staff members.

As of March 31, Rice had raised $106,461 and spent $56,620 from her campaign account, and raised $264,570 and spent $56,180 in her independent committee.

Welch had raised $58,925 and spent $1,995 in his campaign and raised $101,275 and spent $11,257 in his independent committee.

Wengay Newton cranks up campaign

After a delay forced by recuperation from knee replacement surgery, mayoral candidate Wengay Newton says he’s now cranking up his campaign, and that March should be his first significant fundraising month.

Mayoral candidate and former state Rep. Wengay Newton. [Times]
Mayoral candidate and former state Rep. Wengay Newton. [Times]

Newton had done little public campaigning or fundraising by the end of March, bringing in only $2,435.

Severe pain from the surgery and ensuing physical therapy forced Newton to take strong painkillers that inhibited his ability to make public appearances, he acknowledged.

“I’m now 10 weeks out from surgery,” off the painkillers and walking almost normally, he said. He’s ready to start campaigning and is holding fundraising events.

Newton, a former state House member, ran unsuccessfully for a county commission seat last year, which also delayed the start of his mayoral campaign and fundraising, he said.

Newton has hired Jackson McMillan of Gainesville as his campaign manager and is working with Sole Strategies, a progressive political consulting firm founded by 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign veteran Zee Cohen-Sanchez. His finance director will be Kala Tedder of Tampa, who has worked with the Hillsborough Young Democrats and national College Democrats.

Contact William March at