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Who to vote for in the St. Petersburg elections for mayor and City Council | Editorial
The Times Editorial Board recommendations. Voters get to decide on the next mayor, four City Council seats and seven proposed changes to the city charter.
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This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Oct. 2

It’s time to vote again in St. Petersburg. Mail ballots are already out, and Election Day is just a few weeks away. The August primary pared the mayor’s race to two candidates. Same for the four seats on City Council that remain up for grabs. Voters also get to decide on seven proposed changes to the city’s charter.

All of the candidates the Times Editorial Board recommended in the primary races made it into the general election. As voting gets under way again, we stand by those recommendations.

Below you will find excerpts from our recommendations that ran before the primaries. So far, the Times Editorial Board has weighed in against charter amendment No. 1. The recommendations for the other six amendments will come next week.

All of the races are non-partisan, and they are open to any eligible voter in the city.

MAYOR - Ken Welch

St. Petersburg Mayoral candidate Ken Welch
St. Petersburg Mayoral candidate Ken Welch [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Ken Welch won 39 percent of the vote in the eight-candidate primary. He faces Robert Blackmon, who came second with 28 percent. The winner replaces Mayor Rick Kriseman, who could not run again due to term limits.

Excerpts from what the Times Editorial Board said:

Ken Welch is the best choice to maintain the city’s momentum.

Welch, 57, 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.

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. ...

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.

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Welch was a Democratic delegate for Joe Biden, but he has wide political appeal, exhibited by his many endorsements. ... 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.

Robert Blackmon, 32, 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.”

Read the full mayoral recommendation here.

City Council - District 1 - Copley Gerdes

Copley Gerdes
Copley Gerdes [ Photo courtesy of Copley Gerdes. ]

Copley Gerdes takes on Bobbie Shay Lee. The winner replaces council member Robert Blackmon, who after fewer than two years resigned the seat — effective Jan. 5, 2022 — to run for mayor.

Excerpts from what the Times Editorial Board said:

Gerdes, 38, has the right temperament combined with a solid grasp of the major issues facing his district and the city. Importantly, Gerdes is realistic about what he doesn’t know, and he understands the learning curve and hard work involved in being a member of the City Council.

Gerdes is a graduate of St. Petersburg Catholic High School and Saint Leo University. Earlier in his career, he worked as a teacher and as a business analyst with the Clearwater-based employer solutions company FrankCrum Inc., before becoming the growth and development director and a financial adviser with Northwestern Mutual of Tampa. His father, Charlie Gerdes, served two terms in District 1.

Gerdes wants to work to end divisiveness in the city and ensure that every neighborhood is part of the city’s progress. Gerdes’ even keel, and his eagerness to work together and willingness to put party politics aside would help on the eight-person City Council.

Gerdes, who sits on the Police Athletic League board, received the endorsement of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association. He would support the continued investment in programs that keep kids on the right track. He also would like to ensure that police officers and other first responders are “compensated adequately so we can continue to attract and retain a well-trained and diverse police force.” ...

Bobbie Shay Lee, 48, is a first-time candidate who champions more government transparency. The consultant and breast-cancer advocate lists public safety, children’s physical and mental health, and sewage infrastructure and water quality as her three top priorities. She would also like to address the plume of contaminated water at the old Raytheon facility. But she lacks specifics on too many major issues.

District 4 - Lisset Gonzalez Hanewicz

 Lisset Gonzalez Hanewicz
Lisset Gonzalez Hanewicz [ Photo courtesy of Lisset Hanewicz ]

Lisset Gonzalez Hanewicz faces Tom Mullins.

Excerpts from what the Times Editorial Board said:

Hanewicz stands out as the best candidate to replace council member Darden Rice, who is term-limited. The 50-year-old former state and federal prosecutor has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in business administration from Florida International University and a law degree from the University of Florida.

Her top priorities include maintaining St. Petersburg’s unique character even as the city grows. She wants to ensure the city’s infrastructure is prepared for that growth and the effects of sea-level rise. Her years spent serving on several local boards, including as president of the Crescent Lake Neighborhood Association, show in her firm grasp of the challenges the city faces when it comes to making sure critical infrastructure like sewer lines and stormwater systems can keep up with increased use. She also sits on the board of the Shirley Proctor Puller Foundation, which focuses on improving education outcomes for children in St Petersburg.

She has some common sense ideas about how to make housing more affordable, including adding more accessory dwelling units like garage apartments, changing zoning laws “where appropriate” to increase housing density, and employing land grants to make projects less expensive.

Tom Mullins, 57, is an investment banker with Raymond James whose net worth is about $32 million, according to financial disclosures. He has a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University and an MBA from Dartmouth College.

Mullins possesses an outsider’s eye and would bring a wealth of banking and big business knowledge currently lacking on the council. He wants the Tampa Bay Rays to stay in the Tampa Bay area, but he does not think that baseball is the best use of the Tropicana Field site. He thinks city officials have badly underestimated the value and potential significance of the site. ...

He also said that he would “play defense against popular ‘woke/progressive’ municipal governance policies that have nonetheless proven very harmful in actual practice in city after city across the U.S.” including Seattle, Portland and Baltimore. ...

Mullins is a creative thinker and isn’t afraid of a big idea. But he lacks Hanewicz’s deeper understanding of the challenges facing the city and would not likely be as effective at convincing other council members to support his positions.

District 6 - Gina Driscoll

Gina Driscoll
Gina Driscoll [ Photo courtesy of Gina Driscoll ]

Gina Driscoll, the incumbent, is up against Mhariel Summers. Driscoll and Summers were the only two candidates in the race, so they automatically earned spots in the general election.

What the Times Editorial Board says:

Driscoll, 50, grew up in Dade City and worked in North Carolina before joining St. Petersburg’s tourism industry. She has lived downtown since 2006 and was active in downtown business and neighborhood associations. She was sales and marketing chief at the downtown Hampton Inn before she won her council seat in 2017.

During her first term, Driscoll has been an advocate for more affordable housing and for creating a stronger mix of businesses in the city. She’d like to keep the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg, though she is open to sharing home games with Montreal. She has shown an ability to find common ground with both the liberal and more conservative members of the current City Council, and she has a realistic view of how the city should deal with sea level rise.

Driscoll boasts a slew of endorsements including from the Pinellas Realtors Organization, the Sierra Club, the National Organization of Woman, the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, state Sen. Darryl Rouson, and from fellow council members from across the political spectrum — Darden Rice, Brandi Gabbard, Robert Blackmon and Ed Montanari. Heading into the general election, she had about 15 times more in campaign contributions on hand than her opponent.

Summers, 30, grew up in Coquina Key, and received her bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. She has worked as a legislative aide or political operative for Crist, Rouson, state Rep. Michele Rayner and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine.

Summers would like to create “a seamless city where the sun shines on all!” Her platform includes fostering healthy communities by prioritizing adequate access to food and supporting recreation initiatives. She’d follow the science on how to best fortify neighborhoods against hurricanes and sea level rise. She would also champion “visible equity” so that “as people flock to our city to enjoy all of St. Petersburg’s beauty, that they can enjoy the same quality of experience as they travel throughout my district and throughout St. Pete.”

She recently told the Tampa Bay Times that Driscoll “doesn’t have the communications with the community to foster a small Harlem, a small New Orleans.”

District 8 - Jeff Danner

Jeff Danner
Jeff Danner [ WILFREDO REYES | Jeff Danner ]

Jeff Danner is up against Richmond “Richie” Floyd.

Excerpts from what the Times Editorial Board said:

Danner’s moderate views and keen grasp of St. Petersburg government make him the best choice to take over for council member Amy Foster, who is term-limited. In some ways he has an unfair advantage: He already served eight years on the council having won in 2005 and 2009. He had a reputation for doing his homework and for trying to find common ground on a council whose members didn’t always see eye-to-eye.

Danner, 61, has worked as a contractor and spent the last four years as a building inspector with the city. He’s a historic preservationist who has opposed the demolition of some downtown buildings, though he has a realistic view of the balance between preserving the past and allowing enough growth for the city to prosper. In 10 years, he hopes downtown has a “a balance of updated and well-maintained historic buildings, blended with compatible, contextual state-of-the-art development worthy of a place in our city.”

He also espouses a solid approach to mitigating the effects of sea-level rise, including engaging scientists to weigh in on the best plan, and the appropriate urgency not to punt the problem down the road. ...

Floyd, 30, is a digital systems engineer turned Pinellas County science teacher. His time spent organizing campaigns for progressive causes, including the $15 minimum wage and criminal justice reform, give him an impressive understanding of the social justice issues the city faces.

He speaks passionately and in depth on ways to make “housing permanently affordable,” including using land grants and changing permitting and zoning rules.

Floyd would bring some youthful energy and a reliably progressive mindset to a council that already tilts in that direction.

Read the complete City Council recommendations here.

Tampa Bay Times 2021 St. Petersburg general election recommendations

The Times Editorial Board recommendations for mayor, City Council and charter amendment questions.

MAYOR - Ken Welch

CITY COUNCIL

Dist. 1 - Copley Gerdes

Dist. 2 - (Incumbent Brandi Gabbard declared the winner after her opponent dropped out.)

Dist. 4 - Lisset Gonzalez Hanewicz

Dist. 6 - Gina Driscoll

Dist. 8 - Jeff Danner

CHARTER AMENDMENTS (Yes/No vote)

No. 1 - No

Nos. 2-7 -To be announced

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.