ST. PETERSBURG — Ken Welch, a St. Petersburg native who grew up in one of its redlined neighborhoods and attended one of its segregated elementary schools, was sworn in Thursday as its first Black mayor.
While COVID-19 precautions and the mayor’s own positive test derailed some of the pageantry, community leaders cheered during the virtual ceremony shown at the city’s Woodson African American Museum of Florida and students in at least 22 Pinellas County schools tuned in to witness what was once unimaginable.
They saw Welch, who was experiencing mild cold-like symptoms from the coronavirus, sworn in at his Lakewood Estates home by Sixth Judicial Circuit Judge Michael J. Andrews. They watched him put his left hand on a Bible carried by his 19-year-old daughter, Kenya. They listened as he recited the oath of office.
While the swearing-in was prerecorded, the mayor was able to give a live address that was streamed online and shown on city television shortly after noon.
“Yes, this election is historic,” he said. “But our goal is not to simply make history — rather we must work together to make a difference, to make an impact for this generation, and for generations to come. Our collective vision will define what progress looks like for our entire city.”
Welch, 57, pledged to embrace the people’s desire for a community where every person is valued. He vowed to get to work on affordable housing, improve city operations and follow through on broken promises made to the diaspora of the city’s Gas Plant neighborhood, once a home to the Welches and a center of the Black community.
“When we listen to each other, and work to truly understand our viewpoints, we grow stronger collectively,” Welch said.
Welch enters City Hall with the most diverse City Council on record — four members of color, including its first Hispanic member and a Black member elected from north of Central Avenue. Three newly elected and two re-elected members were sworn in Thursday morning on the steps of City Hall.
City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders made it from City Hall to the Woodson Museum just in time to see the National Anthem played by 20-year-old local saxophonist Jordan Bolds.
“What today meant was the hope for an opportunity of new beginnings,” Figgs-Sanders said. “I was proud. There was no way I was going to miss that.”
A wonderful world
Terri Lipsey Scott was at the edge of her seat.
At the end of Welch’s swearing-in, she was the first to give a standing ovation in the small crowd invited to the museum.
“It was that waiting to exhale moment,” Lipsey Scott said. “It became real at that moment.”
Lipsey Scott, the museum’s executive director, couldn’t bear to let the fanfare for the city’s first Black mayor fall to the wayside. She hosted the exclusive watch party — with balloons, appetizers, Prosecco and large-print photos of Welch — and gathered his most ardent supporters. The African American museum, after all, is where Welch celebrated his victory.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Among those in attendance were several county leaders: City Council members Richie Floyd, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and Figgs-Sanders; Pinellas County Commissioner Rene Flowers, Pinellas School Board members Caprice Edmond and Laura Hine, state Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, and St. Petersburg NAACP president Esther Eugene.
After the ceremony was over, Lipsey Scott lined up Bolds, the saxophonist; 18-year-old Jaiden Jones, who sang What a Wonderful World; and 20-year-old violist Carlos Walker.
“What a wonderful world it is,” she said.
Flowers stood up next and summarized what she described as “the long hard road to get here:” Decades of institutional racism in St. Petersburg. Sanitation workers striking 55 years ago to be treated equally as city employees. African Americans earning the right to vote in 1965.
And exactly one year ago today, she said, “individuals tried to take over the capital of the United States of America to take away that right to vote.”
“I am sharing all of that with you because I want you to truly embrace and understand the moment of the day,” Flowers said. Recalling a text she wrote to Welch on Saturday, she said, “January 6 last year was a day of heartache and pain but the one who we serve has allowed us to reclaim that pain.”
A fantastic day
Earlier downtown, outgoing council chairperson Ed Montanari opened the swearing-in of new and re-elected City Council members by saying hello to one guest who couldn’t make it: Welch. He also welcomed the city’s new deputy mayor, Stephanie Owens.
Sixth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Pam Campbell led council members through their oaths of office.
New District 8 City Council member Richie Floyd stepped forward to cheers and applause. He was accompanied by his wife, Miranda, and his parents, Jerome and Tobie Floyd.
They carried a blue box holding a Bible that had been in the family since 1873. Floyd said it was likely one of the first possessions bought upon being freed from slavery.
“I am more than proud of him,” said Jerome Floyd, who traveled from Fort Walton Beach. “He will do great things.”
The family of Copley Gerdes, who was elected to serve District 1, is no stranger to politics. His uncle Rob Gerdes works in City Hall, and his father, Charlie Gerdes, is a former City Council member. The whole family got up on stage for a group photo.
“I’m very blessed to have a big village,” Gerdes said.
Despite having a broken fibula, District 4 member Lisset Hanewicz, the first Hispanic person elected to the City Council, made it to the stage with her husband and 7-year-old daughter. She took her oath on the Spanish Bible owned by her mother, who died in September.
Gina Driscoll and Brandi Gabbard were reelected and confirmed as the council’s 2022 chair and vice chair, respectively.
Time to get to work
Welch handily won the Nov. 2 election with 60 percent of the vote. He had bipartisan endorsements and ran on a platform of progress and inclusivity. The five-time Pinellas County commissioner and son of the first Black man on the City Council had been waiting for this moment for a long time.
In his address, he announced that he is creating a “high-level position” called the assistant administrator for strategic initiatives to focus on the preservation and development of affordable and workforce housing. Filling that role is the city’s current neighborhood affairs administrator Rob Gerdes, uncle of the new council member.
Gerdes will join high-ranking officials like Owens, now the city’s deputy mayor and chief of policy; Tom Greene, the interim city administrator who worked in Rick Kriseman’s administration; director of communications Janelle Irwin Taylor; and senior adviser Doyle Walsh.
Welch said he would implement a diversity, equity and inclusion program. He thanked the business and arts communities and said he would listen to the recommendations of the city’s 3,200 employees for improving operations, efficiency and customer satisfaction.
Welch thanked Kriseman, his predecessor, for his leadership, especially during the pandemic, as well as new City Council chairperson Driscoll. He said has called a joint meeting between the County Commission, the City Council and his office to discuss the Tampa Bay Rays among other topics.
”As my father would say — it’s time to get to work.”