It seems like forever ago that talk of St. Petersburg’s next Mayor began centering on Darden Rice and Ken Welch. Rice especially has been raising funds since the ink was barely dry on Rick Kriseman’s 2017 reelection, and buzz for Welch started long before he ever made a fundraising ask.
But despite that long-haul expectation, there have always been whispers, if not a strong yearning, for another option — a candidate who could carry the Old Northeast old guard (read: White Republicans and independents).
There was talk, for sure. Would Rick Baker run a fourth citywide campaign? Could Jeff Brandes ditch Tallahassee early to claim the St. Pete throne? What about warhorse Ed Montanari, who could surely woo the Fourth Street Chick-fil-A crowd?
No. They all passed. Maybe some had their own personal reasons. Or maybe they just recognized the city’s changing dynamic — It’s not Bill Foster’s St. Pete anymore.
Still, while St. Pete might have gone blue, and may go bluer still, there are those who aren’t ready to vote for either Rice or Welch.
Enter Robert Blackmon.
All things considered, Blackmon is new to the game. He entered the St. Pete political landscape less through Herculean strength than through sheer luck stemming from someone else’s bad choices and resulting misfortune.
By all accounts, Scott Orsini was the anointed successor to Charlie Gerdes in District 1. Had it not been for Orsini’s troubling past comments that eventually pushed him out of the race, Blackmon might have wound up just another also-ran.
Instead he immediately took up the torch and catapulted himself to frontrunner status. He was the quintessential moderate — conservative, but not so much so that loyalist Dems would hold their nose. It helped that the Democrat in the race amounted to little more than a tomato can.
Oh, and did we mention he had a major assist from none other than Rice herself? And she wasn’t the only Dem lining up to support Blackmon — Gina Driscoll was unwavering. It was an odd sight indeed to see Rice sharing a stage (more like standing in front of a table in a West St. Pete restaurant) with Baker stumping, and fundraising hard core, for the same candidate.
It’s that type of bipartisan support that offers Blackmon a lane in the mayoral race, even if he won’t have Rice cheering him on.
But make no mistake, he has challenges ahead.
Two weeks ago I introduced Blackmon to Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, telling them he might be running for Mayor. Curiously, they didn’t know anyone with any cash to spare in a political committee.
That doesn’t inspire a lot of early confidence. After all, Blackmon lacks the name ID Baker, et al carry.
But he’s young, he has moxie, and he’s taking up a lane that was previously clear for as long as the eye could see.
If nothing else, Blackmon shakes up the dynamics in the Aug. 24 Primary.
Two polls in the race so far have shown Rice narrowly leading Welch in a Primary. But that didn’t matter. All he needed was to slip into second place and move on to the November General Election. There, polls showed him with a decent lead over Rice. For Welch, the path to the Mayor’s office was clear.
Blackmon definitely puts a dent in that calculous for Welch, and to an extent, Rice as well.
For Welch, he now not only has to worry about splitting the Black vote with former City Council member Wengay Newton, he also has to worry about the Primary becoming a partisan contest, where there’s room for just one Democrat. That should worry Rice, too.
Enter campaign shenanigans. At this point, I’m not convinced Rice is in danger of not making it out of the Primary. But she has lost elections she should have won before and might not want to take any chances.
She would say she’s above campaign trickery and various hijinks, but we’ll see.
Does that mean going negative against Welch over the summer, which would ultimately boost Blackmon in a runoff? Or maybe she gets extra sneaky and concocts some back-door effort to boost Newton, who has raised a pittance and doesn’t seem to be even taking the race seriously? Maybe there’s a GOTV push indirectly on his behalf aimed at pilfering votes from the Welch column into Newton’s.
Welch’s “ride it out and turn on the burners in the General” strategy just got pooh-poohed. The time is now for him to put the pedal to the metal.
I’m guessing he knows this. He has assembled a smart team of strategists — Stephanie Owens, Kevin O’Hare, Marissa Tully, Reggie Cardozo, to name just a few — who no doubt have already revisited the drawing board.
But before any of those questions are answered, Blackmon has to first show he has the chops to run a citywide election. Can he rise above petty disputes about manatee murals to be mayoral enough to sit at the big kids’ table?
As Memorial Day Weekend approaches and the mayoral race comes into full view, Blackmon will soon enough show whether he can rise to the occasion, pit directly against veteran debaters in both Rice and Welch.
One thing, though, is for certain, the race just got a whole lot more interesting.