Candidates for St. Petersburg Mayor will square off Tuesday in the first debate of this election cycle, setting the tone for this summer as the Aug. 24 Primary Election approaches.
It’s the candidates’ first opportunity to address voters from a shared platform and an important chance for frontrunners to secure their positions and for lesser known candidates to boost their name ID among voters.
Prep is well underway.
City Council member Robert Blackmon hopes to highlight some of his key priorities, including affordable housing and developing the Tropicana Field site.
Both are issues likely to come up from debate moderators — Tampa Bay Times Political Editor Steve Contorno and Bay News 9 anchor Holly Gregory.
“I’m the best guy to negotiate with the Rays and the future of the site,” Blackmon told Florida Politics. “I’ve worked with them from the inside of government, but I also have the real estate experience from the private sector.”
Current Mayor Rick Kriseman short-listed two design teams to develop the sprawling site, with plans both with and without a Tampa Bay Rays stadium. City Council members have hit the pause button on approving either team for site development, favoring instead waiting for the next administration to move forward.
Blackmon also weighed in on potential plans to have the Rays split their season between St. Pete and Montreal, another issue that could come up in debate Tuesday.
“My number one job as a City Council member and as a Mayor is getting the most benefits for our community,” Blackmon said. “If we can redevelop in a way that works, I would be OK with that.”
Blackmon will be part of a crowded virtual debate stage with seven other candidates — City Council colleague Darden Rice, former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, former City Council member Wengay Newton, restaurateur Pete Boland, University of South Florida St. Pete student Michael Ingram, marketer Marcile Powers and a newcomer to the race, Torry Nelson.
Boland expressed frustration with the debate format, which will be held over Zoom remotely and broadcast on the Times website and on Bay News 9 at noon.
“We had plenty of time to plan this,” Boland lamented, noting Tampa Bay Lightning games are now at near full capacity and Rays games are at full capacity. “I think the voters would be better serve seeing us all of us up there together. You’re not going to run the city from your bedroom.”
Boland entered the race late and, as a nonelected official, has been talked about as a lower-tier candidate than perceived frontrunners Rice, Welch and Blackmon who bring to the race strong name ID from their time in elected service.
He hopes the debate will be an opportunity for him to distinguish himself as a strong contender, and plans to highlight what others might perceive as a weakness.
“I want to put St. Pete first. I’m not a career politician, I’m not going to be a career politician, I have’t been running for Mayor for years, and I haven’t used my platform to run for Mayor,” Boland said.
He hopes to highlight his experience as an entrepreneur as a chance to bring a pro-business spirit to City Hall, one that would include identifying efficiencies and reevaluating zoning policies to provide more opportunities for affordable housing by increasing density options in an already built out city.
Voters will likely be watching Rice and Welch, who have led polls ahead of Tuesdays debate.
“Ken took time to take practice questions from his campaign team, but he’s talked to so many voters in the last few months it would be hard to surprise him with any question,” Welch’s campaign offered in a statement about his debate prep. “Nobody knows this community better than Ken, a third generation native who’s even moonlighted as an Uber driver to learn what’s on the minds of constituents.”
Rice offered a similar sentiment.
“The voters are responding really well to our message when we’re knocking doors and phone banking, so Darden will be carrying that same message into the debate,” said campaign consultant Meagan Salisbury. “Darden is looking forward to talking about the work she’s done throughout her career in progressive issue advocacy and her accomplishments on City Council over the past seven years. She will focus on her vision for a city where everyone, no matter what zip code they live in, has a real opportunity to thrive.”