None of the three major announced candidates in the 2021 race for St. Petersburg Mayor are White men. Few developments in local politics demonstrate the seismic change in the city’s political landscape than that.
The race currently includes an openly gay woman and two Black men — City Council member Darden Rice, former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch and former Rep. (and former City Council member) Wengay Newton.
If that doesn’t change, or even if it does and one of those three wins, of which there’s a good chance, it would be a detraction from St. Pete’s long history of White male leadership.
Current Mayor Rick Kriseman, who is leaving office because of term limits, is White. His predecessor, Bill Foster: also White. Before that was Rick Baker, White. The city’s first strong Mayor, David Fischer: as white as Wonder Bread.
The city has never had a Black Mayor and hasn’t had a woman in the office since 1985 when the city’s first woman Mayor, Corinne Freeman, left office.
Demographics aside, there’s a liberal shift afoot in the city. Before Kriseman’s initial swearing-in on Jan. 2, 2014, the city had been led for 13 years by devout conservative Baptists in Baker and Foster.
Foster, a one-term Mayor who served from 2010 to 2014, infamously said he believed humans and dinosaurs roamed the Earth at the same time (hint: they didn’t, by about 60 million years,) believes (or at least did) that the Earth was literally created in six days and once complained when his son was taught about evolution in fifth grade.
Fast forward just seven years and the city is looking at its most progressive slate of mayoral candidates ever.
Welch, an unabashed supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, officially launches his campaign Thursday. Rice, who has long been a progressive champion for the environment, campaign finance reform and LGBTQ equality, is likely to follow. Newton lacks the same progressive bona fides as his Democratic opponents, but still represents a stronger than historically usual commitment to improving conditions for Black citizens, particularly those struggling in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
But despite the shift, St. Pete is not a progressive hotbed ala Austin or Portland, as some would like to believe. There are still plenty of Republican voters within city limits and droves of others who are still hungry for moderation.
The conventional wisdom holds that Rice, with her name ID, large campaign bank account, and hammer-lock on many, if not most, of St. Pete’s progressive voters, is the front-runner. Welch would be a strong second were it not for the likelihood that Newton will cut into Welch’s support in St. Pete’s politically vibrant Black community.
If no other major candidate entered the race, the forecast is that Rice would come close to 50% in the primary, while Welch would make the runoff by splitting the Black vote and doing much better in White St. Pete than Newton.
It’s hard to take issue with that forecast, although a case can be made that Welch’s support in north and west St. Petersburg is underestimated. There also could arise a scenario in which the more conservative St. Pete political trifecta — the Chamber of Commerce, former Mayor Baker and Sen. Jeff Brandes — throws its weight behind Welch in hopes of thwarting what they see as Rice’s hyper-partisanship and a Bill de Blasio-style of governance.
Baker would seem likely to support Newton considering Newton crossed party lines to back his failed 2017 mayoral bid, but if Newton’s campaign is a long shot, political calculus could prevail.
All of this said, I would be surprised if the field remains Rice versus Welch versus Newton.
And I’m not talking about the inevitable entrance of a couple of third- and fourth-tier candidates. You know who we’re referring to: the former random City Council member who served in the ’90s or the die-hard environmentalist who believes the city isn’t doing enough on issue X or Y. That has been the typical mold, anyway. Indeed, there already is one: USF student Michael Ingram.
Instead, I think the Rice-Welch-Newton lineup has already so tilted the race to the left, that they are creating an opportunity for a moderate business leader, Downtown Partnership-type to enter the race.
And, believe it or not, this mystery candidate could win the race.
First of all, Candidate X doesn’t have to jump in now. Let Rice and Welch fight it out for the fast lane on the left. Let them go back and forth with their endorsement announcements. Let Newton tire them out by eating up the clock at the candidate forums, a skill no one would deny he possesses.
It could very well be better for the mystery candidate to jump in closer to the close of candidate qualifying. By then, a large bloc of St. Pete voters will have heard what Rice and Welch have to say and they will reach a couple of conclusions.
First, neither of them has any real executive experience; they’re both legislators. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Kriseman was in the same boat and he turned out to be a pretty good Mayor. But folks voting for Mayor might want to see a true executive.
Second, it’s likely Rice and Welch’s platforms will be too liberal for the still moderate St. Pete that exists outside of the liberal downtown crowd. Already there as been much consternation over the city’s emphasis on downtown, arguably at the detriment to other parts of the city. Think drain the swamp, only in St. Pete. (But please don’t drain it into the Bay.)
The challenge for this mystery candidate would be fundraising, so it would be better if they have some name ID and/or can write a large enough check to quickly buy it.
They have to also recognize that their goal cannot be to win the primary. No matter who runs, I think it’s safe to assume Rice will finish first. Candidate X merely has to finish ahead of Welch and then duke it out in the General Election with Rice.
Once in the General Election, Candidate X has to quickly build the coalition that has traditionally won elections in St. Pete. That requires splitting the northeast part of the city while dominating the Black vote — a feat that would be easier against Rice than Welch.
Oh, and be prepared to spend lots and lots of money — we’re talking two to three times as much as Rice, who is a prodigious fundraiser.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily looking for a challenger to emerge to Rice and/or Welch. These are two tremendous people who have dedicated much of their lives to making St. Pete what it is today. I consider both friends. In fact, the hardest decision I will face in this race is deciding which of the two to support. (Newton is my friend, too, and while I appreciate his public service — and have lauded it more than most — I do not believe he is the right person to lead the city.)
But it’s no secret that there is a decidedly vocal part of the community that is still looking for a standard-bearer in the mayoral race.
The more the race tilts to the left, the larger the opening for a candidate to represent those voters becomes.
For eight years people outside of Kriseman’s inner circle and core supporters have groused about his progressive leadership. Now an open race means a new, moderate lane. The question may not be if someone claims it, but who.