In a sign that his campaign for St. Petersburg Mayor is about to ramp up, former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch is assembling a power squad of Tampa Bay area politicos.
In recent days and weeks, Welch has brought on several top-tier consultants and strategists as the August Primary Election draws near.
Hires include Stephanie Owens, who is serving as the campaign manager. Owens is a principal for Dolphin Strategies, a firm whose clients include advocacy organizations, government agencies and political candidates, parties and committees.
She formerly served as a consultant for advocacy and election protection for the liberal group Common Cause, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters, a deputy director in the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and a national engagement coordinator for now-President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Summit when he was Vice President in the Barack Obama administration. Owens also previously worked in the Bill Clinton administration.
Kevin O’Hare, a former regional organizing director for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential campaign, is serving as a field director. O’Hare has worked in several Democratic consultant roles, including a regional organizing director for Florida Coordinated Campaign and the group Organizing Together. He also served as an outreach director for All For Transportation in Hillsborough County and as a regional field director for Revolution Field Strategies.
Marissa Tully also joined the Welch team to head fundraising efforts. Tully heads her own firm, Tully Campaign Strategies. She most recently served as finance director for Adam Hattersley’s congressional campaign. She also served as a regional finance director for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Amy for America presidential campaign and as the Central Florida finance director for former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s failed 2018 reelection campaign.
Other hires include Travis Peterson as a mail vendor and Counterpoint Messaging’s John Rowley for television and paid media. Both formerly worked on current Mayor Rick Kriseman’s campaign. The lineup also includes Vito Sheeley, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and former candidate for Florida House District 70, as the campaign’s director of community outreach and engagement.
“St Petersburg is my hometown; it’s where my wife and I have raised our daughters. I feel a deep love and responsibility for this city, and I believe that this is a crucial election for St. Petersburg’s future. That’s why we have assembled a top-notch team of professionals who not only have the insight, expertise, and discipline to win but also share my overarching goal of bringing inclusive, principled progress to our city. We will build a stronger and more equitable St. Petersburg,” Welch told Florida Politics.
The hires signal campaign activity is about to ramp up. So far, Welch has held onto his campaign cash, spending just $15,000 from his official campaign, out of $123,000 raised, and $24,000 of $159,000 raised in his political committee, Pelican PAC.
By contrast, Welch’s top contender, St. Pete City Council member Darden Rice, has spent $110,000 of the nearly $198,000 raised for her campaign and $72,000 of the more than $358,000 raised in her committee, Friends of Darden Rice.
Welch’s general consultant, veteran strategist Reggie Cardozo, told Florida Politics the team had been largely holding onto its cash through the early stages of the campaign, holding out for when voters are more engaged in the upcoming election.
As he put it, voters have a short attention span, and dropping money on paid media too early can be an inefficient strategy. Instead, he said to expect the campaign to ramp up in the coming weeks as voters start paying more attention to the race.
Indeed, some of that work has already begun.
Teams were canvassing neighborhoods last week speaking with voters, and Welch has been giving interviews as part of an earned media push — a strategy that allows candidates to share their messaging via the news media without dropping cash on expensive ad buys.
Welch’s campaign is also launching an initiative called Wednesdays with Welch, an opportunity for residents to engage with the candidate asking questions about issues important to them and their communities.
According to polling, Welch and Rice are the two front-runners in the race, with former state Rep. Wengay Newton keeping pace in the No. 3 spot.
But the race is close, and still anyone’s to grab.
The latest St. Pete Polls survey of the race found Rice slightly leading Welch in a Primary Election matchup, which also includes several lesser-known candidates. However, an earlier poll by the same pollster shows Welch narrowly leading Rice in a hypothetical General Election.
Still, undecideds in the race, according to both polls, exceed 40% of those surveyed in a representative sampling of St. Pete voters. What’s more, the share of undecided voters shrank just three percentage points from a March poll to the most recent, released last week, from 43% to 40%.
Voter uncertainty could waive in Welch’s favor. With Rice having burned through $182,000 to Welch’s $39,000, the lag in voter commitments could signal her early spending has yielded few results. In addition to the race still being wide-open, Rice’s support also stayed relatively stagnant between the two polls, with her support climbing just one percentage point from March to May in a General Election.
Welch maintained his lead between the two polls in a possible primary, 31% to 24%, outside the margin of error in both polls.