Who should be St. Petersburg’s next mayor? We have an answer
The Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board makes its recommendation for who should succeed Mayor Rick Kriseman.
From left - Ken Welch, Darden Rice, Robert Blackmon and Wengay Newton. They are all running for mayor of St. Petersburg.
From left - Ken Welch, Darden Rice, Robert Blackmon and Wengay Newton. They are all running for mayor of St. Petersburg. [ Times files ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published July 29, 2021|Updated July 29, 2021

St. Petersburg is on a roll, so the first rule for the next mayor is simple: Don’t mess up that mojo. Nurture it. Build on it. And use it to create opportunities in the parts of the city where the future doesn’t seem as bright.

Whoever takes charge after Mayor Rick Kriseman must also be up to other challenges: Negotiate with the Tampa Bay Rays. Champion the best plan for the Tropicana Field site. Create more affordable housing. Prepare the city for sea-level rise. And keep crime in check. The mayor must build bridges, not pick pointless fights. Be tough when it’s called for, but understand the power of humility. Listen to neighborhood residents. Have a vision for how much greater the city can be in 10 years.

The race to replace Kriseman is crowded, with several solid candidates. But Ken Welch is the best choice to maintain the city’s momentum.

Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch.
Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times (2018) ]

Welch, 56, grew up in St. Petersburg. He graduated from Lakewood High School and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg before getting a master’s in business administration from Florida A&M University. He’s an accountant by trade, known best for serving 20 years on the Pinellas County Commission. Last year, he did not seek re-election so that he could run for mayor.

On the commission, Welch championed programs to help homeless people, including the county’s first homeless policy group. That led to the formation of Pinellas Hope, a partnership with Catholic Charities. He was part of the commission that started the housing trust fund, which now has $100 million in its coffers, he said. And he helped increase the county’s small business enterprise program from $70,000 to more than $20 million. In 2012, when a majority of the county commission stupidly voted to remove fluoride from the water supply, Welch stood strong in opposition, and he helped overturn that decision the following year.

Related: How the Times makes its recommendations.

The next mayor will have to figure out how to keep the Rays playing baseball in St. Petersburg — or at least in the Tampa Bay area — and how best to use the 86-acre Tropicana Field site. Welch likely would be more constructive and less combative than the current mayor, though he also understands that the city must strike a good deal with the team. His family ran a woodyard in the old Gas Plant district, one of the businesses displaced when the city assembled the land that would become home to the stadium. Welch remembers walking from the woodyard to church as a child, once plucking a few mangoes from Ms. Brown’s yard. By the time he got to church, his parents already knew about the mangoes, and he got to pay Ms. Brown back by sweeping her porch or raking her yard.

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“It’s that sense of community that we lost because everyone was uplifted and dispersed to different places,” he said.

With his family connection to the Trop site and as St. Petersburg’s first Black mayor, he would be uniquely suited to ensuring the redevelopment honors what he calls “the original promise of shared benefit and prosperity for the entire community.”

Welch recognizes how better schools and more jobs mean less crime and safer neighborhoods. And he emphasizes that sewers and stormwater projects aren’t as exciting as building a new Pier or stadium, but they cannot be ignored.

Welch was a Democratic delegate for Joe Biden, but he has wide political appeal, exhibited by his many endorsements. He has the support of Democrats like U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, former state Sen. Arthenia Joyner and former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, and Republicans including Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, former Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. Most of the current county commissioners and several members of the St. Petersburg City Council back him in the race for mayor. Recently, Welch received a slew of endorsements from members of the LGBTQ community, including Michele Rayner, the first openly LGBTQ woman of color in the Florida Legislature. That wide appeal shows Welch’s ability to build consensus and go beyond political affiliations. It also positions him to be a leader among leaders as the greater Tampa Bay region tackles common issues like transportation, water quality and sea-level rise.

As mayor, he plans to find ways to slip into the shoes of his constituents, similar to the workdays of candidate Bob Graham when he was running for governor. Welch already spent parts of 2018 and 2019 working as an Uber driver to learn more about unfamiliar parts of the county and better understand what was on the minds of county residents.

“People tell their Uber drivers everything, way too much,” he discovered from his 1,000 Uber trips. “It was really informative.”

While Welch enjoys solid credentials and wide-ranging support, he has occasionally fallen short of the standards we should expect from a mayor. To this day, he defends how he lobbied other public officials in 2018 on behalf of a nonprofit that promised to hire his wife. He says they were both cleared of wrongdoing. More recently, he described former Mayor Rick Baker as “massa” in what he thought was a private text message group among other Black officials. Welch blames politics in both episodes. We also see a lapse in judgment.

There are other credible candidates for mayor. Robert Blackmon is a real estate investor, born and raised in St. Petersburg. Since joining the City Council less than two years ago, Blackmon has a record of getting things done, including his recent effort to restore the Science Center of Pinellas County, which was slated for demolition. He’s a nimble thinker who has brought intriguing ideas and energy to the council and the campaign. When questioned about his comparative youth during his interview with the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board, Blackmon had a quick reply: “You don’t have to wait your turn if you have the best ideas.”

Darden Rice, 51, is coming to the limits of her term on the City Council. She is strong on environmental issues and has an astute understanding of why the city must prepare for sea-level rise. She has a reputation for doing her homework, and she commits to re-tooling some parts of city government, including the building department, which has a long reputation for sclerotic bureaucracy. Given her generally good record, we were disappointed by Rice’s far-fetched efforts to link Welch to former President Donald Trump. The nonpartisan mayoral contest is no place for partisan smear campaigns, especially ones with no local relevance.

Wengay Newton, 57, leads with his heart and has a genuine passion for improving the lives of St. Pete residents, especially in the parts of the city that he calls the “areas of greatest neglect.” As a Democratic member of the Republican-controlled state Legislature, he had a record of building support for projects in his district, which include parts of St. Petersburg. Newton is affable and disarming, even when he gets rhetorically long-winded.

Peter Boland, 37, was a breath of fresh air in the mayoral race, a straight-talking small business owner and first-time candidate with an obvious love of the city. He attended Shore Acres Elementary, Southside Fundamental Middle and St. Petersburg High School before launching a career in hospitality. He now co-owns and operates The Galley: A St. Pete Tavern, The Ship’s Hold and Mary Margaret’s Olde Irish Tavern in the city’s downtown core. He describes himself as conservative-leaning, while supporting the city’s Pride events and eschewing partisan politics at the city level. He’s strongest on issues to support small business and cut red tape.

Although these candidates bring various points of appeal, Welch clearly emerges with the best combination of experience, temperament and judgment. In the race for mayor, with the first round of voting on August 24, the Tampa Bay Times editorial board recommends Ken Welch.

Related: The Times recommendations for St. Petersburg City Council

About the race

Eight St. Petersburg mayoral candidates are on the Aug. 24 primary ballot. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the votes, the top two vote-getters go on to the general election on Nov. 2. The winner is elected to a four-year term and can serve up to two consecutive terms.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.