ST. PETERSBURG — Ken Welch has always gotten around his hometown on two wheels.
When chores were done, a younger Welch would hop on his three-speed bike and take off for hours. He’d ride to the basketball courts at Bartlett Park and behind what was St. Joseph’s Church on 26th Street S. While some kids couldn’t wait to leave a sleepy St. Petersburg, Welch never felt that way.
He married a friend from church, got his bachelor’s degree from the college down the street and turned down job interviews to stay local. He had two daughters, and once they were grown, he bought himself a cream-colored Harley Davidson to ride along the waterfront.
Now he’s trading in those wheels for a Road King with saddle bags to get to his new gig at City Hall. The 59-year-old son of the first Black man to serve on St. Petersburg City Council grew up to do what his father tried 30 years ago to accomplish: Become mayor of his hometown.
Welch’s 21 percentage point win on Nov. 2 was historic, and his victory party celebrated those who paved the way for the city’s first Black mayor. Though his second positive COVID-19 test may have dimmed Thursday’s inauguration by prompting a postponement of the public celebration, Welch said he’s ready to take the reins.
“We partied a lot,” Welch told reporters Tuesday on Zoom. “There will be parties in the future, but it’s time to get to work.”
A St. Petersburg story
The history of St. Petersburg could be told through Welch’s family story. David Welch met Alletha McKenzie at Gibbs Junior College, the only junior college Black students could attend. David was a St. Petersburg native, and Alletha took a two-hour bus ride from Sarasota through Tampa to get to classes.
Ken Welch was the third of David and Alletha’s four children — and the only boy.
Welch worked at his grandfather’s woodyard in the Gas Plant neighborhood where Tropicana Field is today but spent summers and after school at the hub of the neighborhood: his grandmother’s house. She lived down the street from Melrose Elementary, where Welch skipped kindergarten to go to first grade. Welch wasn’t there long; he was in one of the last segregated classes before schools were ordered to integrate through busing.
Welch went to Bay Point Elementary and Bay Point Junior High, where he picked up a saxophone. He got into music and excelled at spelling bees and debates. He read his prized encyclopedia volumes from cover to cover. In a family of educators, Welch was pushed to study hard.
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“And so it wasn’t just the family, the churches instilled that,” Welch said. “When we talked about the gas plant community, the whole community really instilled that as well. And that’s a big thing that we lost.”
Welch went on to Lakewood High, where he played football as a left tackle. That’s where he met Randy Boos, who lined up with him on the field as an offensive guard.
“It was those kinds of cross-cultural relationships that were really the intent of integration and were proof that it worked,” he said. “These were folks I wouldn’t have known or met.”
Welch and Boos have kept in touch ever since. Boos followed Welch’s career on the Pinellas County Commission and helped sway some voters his way in the mayoral election.
“We just appreciated each other’s work ethic,” said Boos, who also stayed in St. Petersburg and has worked in restaurants. “We were both very determined to succeed. We worked very hard. Neither one of us I don’t think ever missed a practice or a game.”
“I always knew with his brains and his determination and the family values that he had, I knew he would be successful in something,” Boos said.
Welch’s father was elected to City Council during Welch’s senior year in 1981. Welch wasn’t involved in his father’s campaign and didn’t take an interest in politics until his father’s re-election in 1985.
Welch was focused on going to school to be an accountant, just like his dad. He graduated from high school at 16, went to University of South Florida St. Petersburg and then joined the family ranks by getting his master’s degree from Florida A&M University, where he graduated second in his class.
Welch cast his vote for mayor at Lake Vista Recreation Center, right behind Lakewood High.
Black City Hall
David Welch mentored Watson Haynes, and Haynes, now the president and CEO of the Pinellas Urban League, mentored Ken Welch, 12 years his junior. Haynes grew up two blocks west of the Welch woodyard.
“All of us in essence in those days were mentored by everyone in the Gas Plant,” he said. “It was a village. That’s why today so many of us know each other. The village was destroyed but so much of us stayed in contact.”
Haynes said Ken back then is the same as the Ken now: even-headed, even-keeled, even-tempered.
“We know the city is going to be in steady hands and we trust that Ken is going to do the right thing because he’s always done it,” he said.
They often met at David Welch’s accounting office in the strip mall on 16th Street S. It was the center of commerce on the southside. Taxes were done, businesses were set up and the space was used as a meeting spot for the 16th Street Business Association.
“That family was intimately involved with literally everybody,” Haynes said. “Ken’s father’s office was what many of us referred to as City Hall. David was what we called our mayor. If there was an issue, (you) called David.”
Welch remembers the big green ledger pads and helping his father handwrite information. He remembers Rick Baker’s election kickoff and Haynes and local developer and politician Deveron Gibbons milling around.
“If you look at Ken, you’re looking at David. Driven,” said Terrell Skinner, a retired St. Petersburg police sergeant, Welch’s former bandmate and brother-in-law. “If he said he was going to do something, he was going to do it. You’re basically looking at a carbon copy.”
Two years after his father lost the mayoral race to David Fischer in 1991, Welch got involved in politics. He joined his father’s campaign for the City Council District 6 seat and won against Frank Peterman, Welch’s quarterback at Lakewood. Welch started weighing in on issues and getting into debates. His wife, Donna, suggested he run for office since he was so engaged.
Welch lost his first race for office. He ran for Pinellas County School Board in 1998 as a Republican, campaigning on the value of education that he got from Melrose — quality education didn’t take a lot of money, just commitment and support for families and students. He lost in the runoff to Nancy Bostock, whom he later served with on the County Commission.
“I’ve always been a person of faith and I just felt that at a certain point, Democrats who were people of faith were kind of being marginalized,” he said. “And Republicans were talking a message of big tent.”
He said he later found that the Democratic party was more open to being a “big tent” and he returned to the party.
“To be effective, I had to be comfortable with what I was,” he said.
Welch is used to breaking boundaries. In 2000, he was the first Black person elected from south St. Petersburg to the County Commission and was the second Black person elected to the board in over 100 years. He would serve 20 years.
“I just think I’m best equipped to bring folks together,” he said. “I’m really just focused on progress for us because you know, the decisions we make now are going to affect my kids, my 19- and 28-year-old.”
Ken Welch’s in-person inauguration at St. Petersburg City Hall has been canceled after he tested positive for COVID-19. He will be sworn in from his home. Watch the ceremony at noon Thursday at tampabay.com, stpete.org/tv or on the city of St. Petersburg Facebook page.