ST. PETERSBURG — Everything was going well for Ken Welch.
Bipartisan support won him 60 percent of the vote in November. With it, he achieved a dream once held by his father, the late City Council member, by becoming mayor of his hometown in November.
But Welch is taking office Thursday under unusual circumstances. A surge of COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant has put a pause on planned public celebrations. Welch tested positive for a second time, despite being vaccinated, and will be sworn in at home without public fanfare.
He expects to work from City Hall on Monday, and the work is already piling up. He’ll have to make decisions about how to deal with sharply rising coronavirus cases and deal with homework left by the outgoing mayor and council: whether to move forward with a developer for Tropicana Field, trying to create a form of reparations for the Black community and exploring the legality and feasibility of imposing rent control.
Welch looks at it this way: At least he was healthy for his win, his victory party, the “community conversations” he held to seek public input, a seminar at the Harvard Kennedy School for newly elected mayors and the trip to the White House. And he knows he’s not alone — other mayors are facing similar circumstances.
“None of this is going to be easy. So I expected some level of challenge going in, whether it was from some natural event or a pandemic or social justice issues. That’s just the world we live in,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “And in talking with the other mayors in the last two events at the White House, and then at Harvard, I mean, every mayor’s going through that. So I’m not alone. But you know, if not you, then who? And I feel privileged to be in a position to impact those things.”
Homework from 2021
With 34 days left in office, outgoing Mayor Rick Kriseman, picked a developer for Tropicana Field. He initially planned to make the decision in May, but said in December he didn’t want to interfere with the election. He later told the Times that it was his responsibility to get it to this point, but that Welch would be the mayor to oversee the development.
Kriseman picked Miami’s Midtown Development. Welch was at Harvard that day and issued a statement that did not promise to honor Kriseman’s pick, saying he would review the proposals.
In his first lengthy interview, Alex Vadia, principal of Midtown Development, told the Times that he reached out to Welch to congratulate him on his election. He said he looked forward to working with Welch and his staff.
“Well, wouldn’t you do your own homework?” Vadia said. “I would expect him to do his own homework. I hope at the end of the day he sees what Kriseman saw in us.”
The 2021 City Council also approved some big measures in its last two meetings: Outgoing member Amy Foster held a surprise vote to authorize the incoming administration to explore how to implement rent control, and it passed 6-1. The council also approved exploring reparations in the form of investment in affordable housing, educational opportunities and economic development to address structural racism outlined in a months-long study.
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While Welch hasn’t received any direct calls, he has heard that members from the Florida Legislature have called other elected officials about it.
“You’re going to trigger some kind of response from the Legislature. You can count on that,” said Welch, summarizing the feedback he has received. “In fact, I’ve already got questions at events, ‘Are you all doing reparations and are you doing rent control?’ You know what our Legislature does, and governor. So how much time and energy are you going to allocate to that?”
Rent control is a phrase that could quickly become a controversial talking point like “defunding the police,” Welch said. He proposes alternative framing, and expanding existing programs to creating affordable housing with money from the Housing trust Fund and the Penny for Pinellas sales tax.
Plus, there’s funding from the federal infrastructure bill. And the Build Back Better plan also has funding for affordable housing.
“So do those things that we know there’s no legal issue with. There’s no legislative backlash to that,” he said, adding that rent control, “is a lot more work with a lot less return. And it’s going to end us up in court.”
Welch’s approach is to “depoliticize” these issues.
“There’s a tendency now to go to your camp before you even know what the facts are,” he said.
Working with City Council
He will have to navigate the politics between his new office and the City Council.
Welch said he’s met with every City Council member and member-elect, some multiple times. He’s working on a joint meeting with the City Council and the Pinellas County Commission to talk about issues, including Tropicana Field.
“We’ve got to work together. And I’m not saying it’s going to be Kumbaya, but I’m going to actively pursue a good working relationship,” he said. " And when we agree, we will, and when we disagree, we’ll do it cordially.”
It’s possible that political lines are already drawn at the City Council, with three new people, already splitting votes twice on choosing chairperson and vice chairperson for the board. Deborah Figgs-Sanders, an ardent Welch supporter, who appeared in line for one of those positions, was passed over for both. She campaigned on continuing the momentum for creating equity following the structural racism study.
“At the end of the day, you’re working together as a team, for the people of St. Petersburg and you know, I’m confident the council will get past that,” he said. “It was not the outcome I expected ... But, you know, I kind of stay focused on my job as mayor to work with all the council members.”
Want to watch?
Ken Welch will be sworn in as St. Petersburg mayor at his home after testing positive for COVID-19. Watch his live, virtual address at noon Thursday at tampabay.com, stpete.org/tv or on the city of St. Petersburg Facebook page.