Talk about the next St. Petersburg Mayor has been ongoing for more than two years, growing from background fundraising for a presumed candidate and whispers about other contenders to sometimes dirty tactics more recently.
Now, the race has likely come down to three front-runners — former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch and St. Pete City Council members Darden Rice and Robert Blackmon — as voters hit the polls and await results from the Primary Election Tuesday night.
Though the race is nonpartisan, it has — much like four years ago — taken on a bitterly partisan tone, pitting Democrats Welch and Rice against Republican Blackmon in a city that favors Democrats but still has a strong Republican bloc.
Partisan themes emerged less against Blackmon than Welch, who has faced a bevy of campaign mailers accusing him of being tied to former President Donald Trump. The handful of campaign literature came from Rice’s political committee, Friends of Darden Rice. They point to Welch’s list of endorsers, including some prominent conservatives, such as Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, and his contributors.
But Welch’s supporters — and even some who had been on the fence between Welch and Rice — found the mailers laughable. Welch is indeed a former Republican. And he does indeed have cross-party endorsers and contributors. But, Rice has plenty of her own conservative donors, including many in former Mayor Rick Baker’s sphere. And two years ago, she endorsed a Republican herself — Blackmon. Further contributing to complaints the mailers were outlandish politicking, Welch served as a delegate for now-President Joe Biden.
And all the while, there was Blackmon, free from the mudslinging between his rivals, one of them a former ally. While he was able to avoid direct attacks at the same level as Welch, he faced a series of self-imposed backlash.
News broke in mid-July about a property Blackmon owns — Paradise Apartments in South St. Pete — that was acquired in April. Blackmon, a real estate investor who rehabs apartment buildings and touts it as real-world experience in providing affordable housing, almost immediately began filing paperwork to evict some tenants, some who were less than two weeks behind on rent and one who owed less than $200.
That prompted old Facebook posts to surface, including one from 2012 in which Blackmon bragged about kicking out the tenants and beginning renovations.
Others had nothing to do with Blackmon’s real estate ventures but painted a troubling picture of a young Blackmon who lacked judgment in his speech.
“A grandma, mom, and 3-year-old, all with bleached blonde hair, spandex, and way too much makeup, just got on the flight. That’s 3 generations of …. SLUTS ON A PLANE!!” a screenshot from an unconfirmed, now-deleted Facebook post in 2011 read.
That post, and several others, reportedly came from former St. Pete City Council candidate Scott Orsini, who had been running against Blackmon two years ago for the District 1 seat Blackmon now holds, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Orsini had an opposition file on Blackmon from that race that had never been released because Orsini dropped out of the race after his own social media scandal.
Still, disdain over Rice’s mailers gained more traction. She dropped in the polls, dropping from second place to third as Blackmon moved up. Welch didn’t budge from his spot atop the field.
The most recent poll, a St. Pete Polls survey commissioned for Florida Politics in early August, showed Welch with nearly 31% support among voters, with Blackmon trailing at 25% support and Rice at 16%.
Those numbers are important — only the top two vote-getters in Tuesday’s election will advance to the Nov. 2 General. That means Rice’s performance at the polls Tuesday is make or break.
And it shows. Heading into the campaign’s final leg, Rice spent more than $340,000 from her committee in July, leaving her with just $38,000 on hand in that account heading into August. During the final week of July, she spent $53,000 from her campaign, leaving just $32,000 on hand there, for a total of $70,000 left between the two accounts. And perhaps ironically, some of that spending went to the campaign mailers that may have dinged her campaign the most.
Neither Welch nor Blackmon spent nearly as much during the same period.
Still, no one is counting Rice out. She has enduring name recognition as a City Council member for nearly eight years and a prominent Democratic activist for years before that.
There’s at least one factor that could play into Rice’s favor on Election Day — a bottom-polling candidate who, despite what polls show, could siphon votes from Blackmon. Restaurateur Pete Boland garnered just 4% support in the most recent poll, but he’s raising money like a decent contender, bringing in about $92,000 through July.
Either way, Welch’s polling numbers, combined with a robust list of local endorsers, strong fundraising and no major scandals, put him in a prime position to make the General Election.
From there, he may have a clear path to the Mayor’s office. The August St. Pete Polls showed Welch in the top spot in the Primary and leading either Rice or Blackmon in hypothetical General Election matchups. There, he leads Rice with 47% support to 25%. Against Blackmon, Welch led with 44% support to 28%.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mail ballots that have not yet been returned can still be returned to an elections office until polls close. Results are expected to come in quickly, with mail ballot results dropping shortly after 7 p.m.