ST. PETERSBURG — Under a clear night sky outside The Woodson African American Museum of Florida, it was all about those who came before Mayor-elect Ken Welch and made his historic victory Tuesday night possible.
A local singer delivered a live rendition of “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. Then, Kymbriell Finch, the 26-year-old granddaughter of “Courageous 12″ leader and former St. Petersburg Police Officer Freddie Crawford, who sued to end racial discrimination in the police department, introduced Welch to the crowd.
Welch took the stage with his wife and two daughters, extended family and his 87-year-old mother, Alletha. He wore his father’s campaign pin from his 1991 bid for mayor. When David Welch ran then, he had already made St. Petersburg history as the first Black man to serve on City Council.
“When he ran in 1991, he faced death threats. It makes the petty attacks on me during this campaign pale in comparison,” the mayor-elect told the crowd. “Dad’s example and the example of thousands of pioneers taught me what real strength and courage looks like and the value of perseverance.”
Welch had already declared victory earlier in the night, just 16 minutes after polls closed and before all precincts were counted. He comfortably won 60 percent of the vote against opponent and City Council member Robert Blackmon. Welch’s watch party at the outdoor space of the museum quickly became a victory party.
“This election has made history in St. Petersburg,” Welch said. “And it is my distinct honor to be the first African American mayor of my hometown.”
He continued: “Let me be clear in stating that making history in and of itself has never been the priority of this campaign, nor will it be the focus of my administration. ... For me, making history without making a positive impact is an empty achievement. Our election victory must be followed by a purposeful agenda of opportunity, accountability and intentional equity for our entire community.”
Welch, 57, will succeed term-limited Mayor Rick Kriseman. Welch’s four-year term will start when he is inaugurated on Jan. 6, 2022.
Voter turnout in this election slightly trailed the last mayoral election in 2017, an intense and closely-contested race between Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker. Turnout on Tuesday was about 35 percent, compared to 39.6 percent in 2017.
Though local races are technically nonpartisan, Welch, a Democrat, dominated in a predominantly Democratic city. Democrats down the ballot won seats in at least three of the four City Council races. The District 8 race between independent Jeff Danner and democratic socialist Richie Floyd was too close to call.
Democrats make up 46 percent of the city’s registered voters. They led in vote-by-mail and Election Day votes. There are almost as many voters registered independent as registered Republican.
Despite it being the first open mayoral election since 2009, this was a relatively low-key campaign. Some speculated that was because of COVID-19 or because, in the words of local politics expert Darryl Paulson, “sometimes nice campaigns can be boring campaigns.”
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On the campaign trail, Welch touted his family ties to the Gas Plant neighborhood and his experience on the county commission. Blackmon campaigned on being new blood and what he’s been able to accomplish in less than a full term on the city council.
Blackmon, 32, called Welch Tuesday night to concede the race. From his watch party at Ringside Cafe, he said he congratulated Welch for making history.
“Ken’s a good guy,” Blackmon said. “I think on both sides we avoided a lot of the dirt that goes around in politics today. I’ll miss getting to spend a couple nights with him a week.”
Blackmon said he was disappointed and felt for his supporters. He said he was convinced he’d won the election based on interviews of voters at the polls conducted by the Tampa Bay Times.
“I hope all of my supporters will give (Welch) a fair shake and a fair chance,” Blackmon said, adding that he’d like to meet up with the mayor-elect to share some of his ideas.
“I knew what I was getting into,” he said. “The odds were stacked against me.”
On the eve of Election Day, Welch and Blackmon wrapped up their campaigns at events that were a short drive apart. Politically, though, the events were much further apart than that.
Welch stood by as NBA Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson gave away free Thanksgiving turkeys to hundreds of residents gathered in the Tropicana Field parking lot. Three miles away in Childs Park, Blackmon spoke with conservative firebrands at the “Blexit 727 Block Party,” a movement trying to convince Black voters to exit the Democratic party.
Blackmon was the last candidate to enter an already crowded mayoral race. He bested City Council member Darden Rice, former state representative and council member Wengay Newton and restaurateur Pete Boland. Rice’s campaign suffered when she sent out a mailer linking Welch, a delegate for President Joe Biden, to Donald Trump.