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In St. Petersburg mayor’s race, LGBTQ support divided between Rice and Welch

Leaders of both Equality Florida and the Stonewall Democrats said it’s not unusual for the LGBTQ vote to split when opposing candidates both have records of support for their issues.
A Pride flag seen outside St. Petersburg City Hall in celebration of Pride month on June 1, 2021.
A Pride flag seen outside St. Petersburg City Hall in celebration of Pride month on June 1, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jul. 30

With an upcoming election that could produce St. Petersburg’s first openly gay mayor, the city’s LGBTQ community appears to be splitting its support between Darden Rice and Ken Welch, based on endorsements and social media postings from community members.

In her campaign, Rice has emphasized her support from various gay rights groups and women’s rights groups — she would be the city’s first female mayor under the strong-mayor form of government as well as its first openly gay mayor.

Mayoral candidate and St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice.
Mayoral candidate and St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice.

Her endorsers include Equality Florida Action PAC, the campaign arm of the state’s leading gay rights group Equality Florida; plus two national organizations, Victory Fund and Lesbian PAC.

But this week, the Pinellas Stonewall Democrats, the LGBTQ caucus of the local Democratic Party, announced they’re backing Welch, and Welch released a list of prominent LGBTQ community leaders supporting him.

St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Ken Welch.
St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Ken Welch. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times (2018) ]

Leaders of both Equality Florida and the Stonewall Democrats said it’s not unusual for the LGBTQ vote to split when opposing candidates both have records of support for their issues.

In 2020, there was minor controversy when the Stonewall Democrats endorsed Mark Oliver while Equality backed Michele Rayner in the South Pinellas-Hillsborough District 70 state House race. Rayner won, becoming the state’s first openly LGBTQ Black elected official.

State Rep. Michele Rayner.
State Rep. Michele Rayner. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Leaders of the groups couldn’t provide data on the size of the city’s LGBTQ voting bloc, but said its growth has fed on itself as the city acquired a reputation as welcoming and progressive. Political insiders agree that regardless of its size, the LGBTQ community is intensely politically active.

“They’re highly engaged,” said Ed Lally, a prolific fundraiser for national Democratic candidates, who said he and his husband moved to St. Petersburg from Tampa, in part because “It’s a thriving community that seems more involved and connected with one another.”

“We have the largest Pride parade in the state and a significant number of voters who support equality even if they aren’t actually members of the LGBTQ community,” said Susan McGrath, a Welch backer and former county Democratic Party chair.

In a city election in which the candidates differ on issues, the LGBTQ community can swing a race, contended Equality Florida executive director Nadine Smith. She said it made the difference in the 2017 Rick Baker-Rick Kriseman race. “But this year now we have two really good choices.”

Stratton Pollitzer, chairman of Equality Florida Action PAC, said the organization backed Rice because she has supported advancement of the LGBTQ community for years — “a consistent champion” — along with other progressive issues including reproductive rights and gun safety.

Some community leaders said Welch antagonized the LGBTQ community in 2006 as a member of the Tourism Development Council by opposing marketing the county to LGBTQ visitors. But they said his views appear to have evolved since then.

Paul Ray, chairman of the Stonewall Democrats, said Welch cast important votes on employment and housing protections as a county commissioner in 2008 and 2013.

In a statement, Ray said the group appreciates “the trailblazing nature of Council Member Darden Rice’s runs for office and her support of the LGBTQ+ community,” and that “Both of the top Democratic contenders … have excellent records on LGBTQ+ issues.”

But he said the group considers Welch “the best candidate to unify St. Petersburg.”

Levinson seeks rematch v. Cohen

In 2020, Tampa youth football executive Scott Levinson surprised Hillsborough political insiders with a strong challenge to South Tampa political powerhouse Harry Cohen for a county commissioner seat – and now he wants a rematch.

Levinson, a Republican, will file early next week to run in Cohen’s commission District 1 in 2022, and Cohen, a Democrat, said he intends to file for re-election soon.

Republican Scott Levinson is again running for the Hillsborough County Commission District 1 seat.
Republican Scott Levinson is again running for the Hillsborough County Commission District 1 seat.

“I’m the same guy with the same fire in my belly,” Levinson said in an interview. “The fact that we came so close shows me our message meant something.”

In 2020, Cohen, a former two-term City Council member, beat Levinson by 1.5 percentage points — 2,655 votes — even though Cohen outspent him roughly 10-1, $218,128 to $23,512.

Levinson, executive director of the Tampa Youth Football League, hadn’t previously run for office or been heavily involved in politics.

He said the spending gap won’t be so big this time — he believes he’ll get financial support from those who were reluctant to back him in 2020 thinking he didn’t have a chance to win.

“Last time everyone wanted to wait and see,” he said. “We showed them there’s some viability.”

“I learned a lot in the first campaign; I’m not as naïve as I was to think it can be done without money.”

Cohen had little to say about his impending opponent.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen.

“I’m so busy doing the job of being a commissioner, that’s what I’ve been focused on. I wish him well and I’m just going to continue to do my job,” Cohen said.

The seat is up for grabs again next year because of the upcoming redistricting. But that also means the district boundaries could substantially change.

It currently is centered in South Tampa, includes parts of downtown and Waterside, and goes south to Ruskin and northwest to Town ‘n’ Country. How its boundaries may change is unpredictable, but the commissioners themselves, including Cohen, will decide the map. Some of the district’s fastest growth has come in center-city areas popular with young urbanites who tend to lean Democratic.

Greco for Blackmon

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, a Democrat with a longstanding habit of backing Republicans, has endorsed St. Petersburg City Council member Robert Blackmon, a Republican, in the non-partisan St. Petersburg mayor’s race.

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco has endorsed Robert Blackmon in the St. Petersburg mayor's race.
Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco has endorsed Robert Blackmon in the St. Petersburg mayor's race. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Greco, 87, grandson of a Tampa cigarmaker, left his ancestral home in 2015 and moved with his wife to a St. Petersburg condo, but then moved back in 2020. He had served three and a half terms as mayor from 1967-74 and 1995-2003.

Blackmon, 32, who’s in his first council term and has defended his experience level, noted in a news release that Greco was Tampa’s youngest mayor ever when first elected at age 34.

Greco praised Blackmon’s youth as “a voice for St. Pete’s future.”

Blackmon touts endorsement from five current or former local mayors – Greco, Redington Beach Mayor David Will, Treasure Island Mayor Tyler Payne, former St. Petersburg Mayor Bob Ulrich, and former South Pasadena mayor and now county Commissioner Kathleen Peters.

Franklin not raising much, but may not need to

U.S. Rep. Scott Franklin, R-Lakeland, isn’t raising much money for his re-election next year, but then he may not need to.

So far, Franklin has no Republican primary challenger, and the only Democrat running against him, Jesse Philippe, hasn’t reported raising any money.

U.S. Rep. Scott Franklin, R-Lakeland
U.S. Rep. Scott Franklin, R-Lakeland

This week, the Democratic Party chairs of Hillsborough and Polk counties, which together make up most of the district, said they don’t see a strong challenger on the horizon; Democrat Alan Cohn, who lost to Franklin by 11 points in 2020, said he’s not interested in another try.

Cohn’s loss, which came despite heavy support from the national party, “was a hard election for us,” said Polk Chair Catherine Price. “Anybody who does want to take it on is going to have to think about it for a while.”

Hillsborough Chair Ione Townsend said uncertainty about the shape of the district, which could change substantially in the coming redistricting, makes it harder for any candidate to contemplate a challenge.

She said she doesn’t think the national party has given up on the district, though, it leans strongly Republican in its current configuration.

Franklin reported raising a $81,626 in the second quarter of the year, for a modest total of $148,943 so far in the 2022 election cycle.