You wouldn’t typically find much in common between a British drama and a St. Petersburg mayoral race, but hear me out.
I’m currently watching Bridgerton, the story of a young debutant searching for the perfect suitor. The main character is, if you will, the belle of the ball. And of course, she’s White. But the high society of ages long past refreshingly goes against the grain — many of the highborn ladies, and the leading male character, are Black.
Like Hamilton, it places actors of color in key roles once reserved for White talent. For decades, this was passed off as an attempt at historical accuracy — after all, early 1800s British aristocracy was indeed a snow White affair. So it’s glorious to see modern fiction replacing exclusionary thinking of the past with inclusionary casts who look more like the world today, even if it seems otherwise anachronistic.
To me, it’s a reminder that representation matters. With that in mind, I can’t stop thinking about what effect a Bridgerton treatment would have on St. Pete as I prepare to cast my ballot later this summer for a new Mayor.
What would the city look like if it was led by a Black Mayor? For that matter, a lesbian? Think of the message that would send to either marginalized community.
That’s one of many reasons why the choice between former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch and City Council member Darden Rice is so difficult. Both have been part of our families’ life for years. They both attended Michelle’s and my wedding. Both were there since the days of SaintPetersBlog.
If I’m keeping score, which I’m not, I’m actually probably closer to Darden than to Ken. But the reason there is no yard sign gracing my front lawn is simple — I didn’t want to offend either, and both offer critical strengths that would serve the city well.
While my choice is definitely between Welch and Rice, I would be remiss if I didn’t stop to note how impressed I am with Robert Blackmon and, yes, Pete Boland.
Blackmon would bring with him an out-of-the-box thinking style that could take St. Pete in many positive directions. He has genuine ideas on how to increase the city’s affordable housing stock — even if he has come under fire in recent days for his own business practices. He has fresh ideas on revitalizing the Southside, too. As a young man (in his early 30s), Blackmon has time to hone his political savviness.
And Boland, to be fair, has surprised many of us who dismissed his campaign as nothing more than a protest against the city’s leftward trajectory. Yet he’s now running a competent campaign that finds at least some traction by channeling the sentiments of many — the frustration with hyper-partisanship among an electorate that isn’t all card-carrying Democrats and Republicans.
Still, neither Blackmon nor Boland has the decades of proven leadership Welch and Rice bring to the table. In many places, and many races, it’s often a dig to call someone a career politician. Not so in St. Pete. The city’s and the county’s slate of experienced politicians makes for responsible and responsive governance. Their combined prowess, while it often ventures into partisan land, bucks party ideology when it’s needed. That finesse led Pinellas County to fare better during the COVID-19 pandemic than just about any other major city in the Southeastern U.S.
Pinellas County, lead by its largest city, has consistently had among the lowest positivity rates in the state. And despite its jam-packed density, its numbers remained far lower than neighboring Hillsborough County. That doesn’t happen by accident. The years of experience Welch had as a County Commissioner helped him navigate pandemic policymaking. Rice’s experience over nearly two full terms on council helped her grow into a leader unafraid to push back on a zealous Mayor in Rick Kriseman looking to secure his legacy with a Tropicana Field site plan.
The city is genuinely blessed to have two candidates so distinctly qualified to run a city. Look back at Welch’s leadership during the fluoride debacle. Much like the pandemic and its small but mighty group of hyper-vocal anti-maskers, the anti-fluoride crowd was unrelenting. So much so the Commission in 2011 voted, against science, to remove fluoride from the county’s drinking water. Two years later, with Welch’s support, they voted to put it back.
Likewise, Rice has been a champion on many issues. She was the biggest driving force behind the city’s new (ish) campaign finance ordinance that limits money in city elections … even if her own campaign finance activity questionably approaches, maybe even crosses, the ordinance she championed.
I believe either Welch or Rice would lead the city for the next four or eight years well. Both could take the baton from the Kriseman years, and dating back to former Mayor Rick Baker, and build on the successes that have turned St. Pete from a sleepy retirement town to a burgeoning hot spot.
So how does someone like me decide?
In all honesty, I believe Rice to be the more decisive, capable, visionary leader. That’s not to say Welch doesn’t have those qualities, but Rice has more effectively, and quickly, forged herself into one of the most impressive leaders Tampa Bay has seen this century. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — she may be the most articulate elected official I’ve ever seen, with the exception perhaps of former Senate President Don Gaetz.
Plus, she is a progressive’s dream, a huge win in an increasingly progressive St. Pete. Her work on the environment, on LGBTQ issues, both before and after elected office, set her apart. And she carries those torches all while also being pretty good on Chamber of Commerce issues important to the city’s business community, a balancing act that’s tough to manage.
But … there’s always a but.
There is a side to Rice that has always limited her future political prospects, in my opinion (and others). It’s why when she seemed a strong enough candidate in 2005 to secure a seat on City Council, she lost and didn’t return successfully until 2013. It’s why even her own campaign has polled her likability.
Were Rice to occupy the Mayor’s Office, I question whether she would be a Mayor for all in the same way Welch could be.
This leads me back to Bridgerton.
Issues of racial divide are not unique to St. Petersburg. And race issues aren’t the city’s original sin, but they are its most enduring.
We could look at any number of race-related issues in the city. The race riot of the 90s. The city’s staggering problem with Black youngsters stealing cars. The lack of a sustainable grocery store in South St. Pete. The displacement of a generation of Black residents from what is now the Tropicana Field site. St. Pete may be progressive now, but the wounds of its past don’t suddenly heal with the changing political winds.
This is the city’s first election since George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, triggering a summer full of Black Lives Matter protests. Now St. Pete voters have the opportunity to elect a leader who will respond to racist policies of the past, generational poverty, crime, blight, and on and on, in ways never seen before.
Indeed, one of the most pressing issues facing St. Pete today is repairing the damage done to the Black community when Tropicana Field was first built in the late 70s and into the early 80s, segregating the city’s Black community from the rest of the city and leading to many of today’s issues plaguing survivors and their descendants.
Who better to lead that healing than a Black Mayor?
Something could also be said of having the first woman Mayor under the city’s strong-Mayor form of government, and the first openly gay Mayor. But Tampa, with Jane Castor, is carrying that torch, and those issues of diversity are playing out faster than those related to race.
My choice for Ken Welch as the city’s next Mayor isn’t just about race. He’s qualified. He has the demeanor. But at this moment, I believe the city needs Welch more than it needs Rice.