Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch is filing to run for St. Petersburg Mayor Friday morning, becoming the fourth candidate to officially jump into the race to replace outgoing Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Welch had already announced his intention to run, having left his seat on the County Commission in anticipation for this year’s bid.
Welch served two decades on the Pinellas County Commission, entering office in 2000 and leaving late last year after forgoing reelection to seek the mayoral seat. On the commission he represented one of the city’s densest minority districts in South St. Petersburg in the Lakewood Estates and Greater Pinellas Point area.
While that district, represented by City Council member Deborah Figgs Sanders in District 5, doesn’t face quite the same inequities as neighboring District 7, which includes mostly impoverished areas around the area formerly known as Midtown, it’s home to a high concentration of minority residents and Democratic voters.
While the race is non-partisan, mayoral candidates’ political leanings are always known and always factor into the race. So far no Republicans have officially announced their intent to run, pitting Welch against fellow Democrats Darden Rice and Wengay Newton, a City Council member and former City Council member, respectively. A no party affiliated candidate, Michael Ingram who is a USF student, is also running.
Welch’s campaign will likely get strong backing from the minority community where he lives and represented for 20 years.
Welch will likely run as a progressive candidate committed to racial equity, building the economy throughout the city, not just in the downtown core, but in communities that have long struggled to get ahead.
And he enters the race officially with a track record to back up his campaign priorities.
Most recently, Welch landed in the spotlight when a colleague, Pinellas County Republican Commissioner Kathleen Peters, criticized Welch’s use of a Black Lives Matter mural on the street in front of the Carter G. Woodson African American History Museum as his background for public Zoom meetings over the summer at the peak of protests over the police killing of George Floyd.
Peters argued public commission meetings were not the place for political statements and was careful not to criticize the message itself. But Welch refused to back down.
“In 2020 in the world that we’re living in we need to speak out on issues,” Welch said. “This is a Zoom background and I will continue to use this Zoom background because I feel that strongly about it.”
Before that, Welch vocally opposed former St. Pete City Council member Karl Nurse’s bid for Pinellas County School Board. Nurse, a White Democrat, was running in District 7, which includes Welch’s home and is the county’s only reliable minority district for School Board members. He was eventually defeated by Caprice Edmond, but not after a higher than usual profile race for an otherwise sleepy, even if important, office.
Welch not only backed Edmond, he returned a donation Nurse made to his own political committee, Pelican PAC.
Standing up for minorities has already earned Welch considerable support among the minority community, including from JC Pritchett, a St. Pete activist and president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and Ashley Green, a St. Pete community organizer.
While Welch’s name has been unofficially in the hat for months, he enters officially at a financial disadvantage against Rice, who has been raising funds in her Friends of Darden Rice political committee for a year. Welch has so far raised just over $58,000 while Rice has brought in nearly $225,000.
While there are some rumored potential Republican candidates, such as City Council members Ed Montanari and Robert Blackmon, the race has for months been expected to be a matchup largely between Welch and Rice, who both have built substantial political capitol over their years in public service to the community.
When Newton, who also served as a State Representative, entered the race it created a dynamic that isn’t guaranteed to help Welch, but could.
It is no secret that Newton often aligns with Republicans. He supported Republican former Mayor Rick Baker in his unsuccessful bid against Kriseman four years ago. And as a state Representative, Newton sided with Republicans on issues related to school choice and a controversial toll road. It’s widely believed that he will enjoy Republican support in his mayoral bid.
However, Rice has appeared to be courting conservative support, too. She received $5,000 from developer John Catsimatidis, a former prominent Baker backer Bill Edwards, who largely bankrolled Baker’s campaign, also contributed $5,000.
That could set up a scenario where Rice and Newton split the conservative vote, an obvious advantage for Welch.
But there’s a lot that could derail that scenario. For starters, Rice has said she is not courting conservative voters. Rather she is running to be a Mayor for all St. Pete residents regardless of party affiliation and is accepting support for any who deems her worthy of it. And indeed, she has a long track record as a progressive and her supporters could likely be loyal enough to not care if she’s receiving Republican support.
Further, if a Republican does enter the race, the issue would likely be rendered moot anyway.
Still, with months left to go before the Aug. 24 municipal primary, this year’s mayoral contest is already shaping up to be highly competitive.
The top two vote-getters in the August race will advance to the General Election in November.