Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon will head to a Nov. 2 runoff after topping a crowded pool of candidates for St. Petersburg Mayor in Tuesday’s Primary Election.
Welch, a former Pinellas County Commissioner, grabbed the top spot with 39% of the vote with 98% of ballots counted. Blackmon, a half-term City Council member, clenched the No. 2 spot with 29%.
“The voters of St. Pete have spoken & I am deeply honored to be headed into November’s runoff election. Because of you, our campaign is one step closer to the inclusive progress we fight for each day. Thank you for joining me as a partner in progress — together, we win!” Welch said less than 10 minutes after polls closed and it was clear he clenched a spot in the runoff.
“I am overwhelmed by the support I have received from the city of St. Petersburg since announcing my candidacy for Mayor,” Blackmon added in his own statement. “I look forward to building the momentum as we move to the General Election and continue to share our vision of protecting our neighborhoods, preserving our environment, and embracing open and ethical government.”
Turnout in the race came in at less than 29%, according to early data from the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office. About 54,000 voters cast a ballot.
Tuesday’s results mean City Council member Darden Rice will leave elected office when her term is up in January, after collecting less than 17% of the vote.
“While we didn’t get the result that we wanted, our work continues. You can count on me to keep fighting for a more equitable St. Pete where everyone has the opportunity to thrive. I will continue to work for access to affordable housing, a world class education for our children, clean water, and a strong, vibrant economy,” Rice said.
“I look forward to continuing to listen to the people of St. Pete, and working with our new mayor to make our city stronger in any way I can.”
Former St. Pete City Council member Wengay Newton finished forth, managing 7% of the vote. Other candidates, including restaurateur Pete Boland, University of South Florida St. Pete student Michael Ingram, community activist Torry Nelson, small business owner Marcile Powers, and write-in candidate Michael Levinson all came in with single-digit voting percentages.
Though the race is nonpartisan it has — much like four years ago — taken on a partisan tone, pitting Democrats Welch and Rice against Republican Blackmon in a city that favors Democrats but still has an active 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, which includes 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 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.
It may have been those mailers that sealed Rice’s fate in this race.
Blackmon, free from the mudslinging between his rivals, one of them a former ally, was able to avoid direct attacks at the same level as Welch. Though he did face some controversy of his own, none seemed to affect him as much as it did Rice, if polls and election results are any indication.
Rice dropped in the polls, 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, showed Welch with 37% support among voters with Blackmon trailing at 27% support and Rice at 17%.
Heading into the General Election though, Blackmon may yet have to face his past.
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 word 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 tenants and beginning renovations.
Others had nothing to do with Blackmon’s real estate ventures, but painted a troubling picture of a young man 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 were leaked by 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.
Blackmon enters the General Election leg at an immediate disadvantage.
The August St. Pete Polls showed Welch not only in the top spot in the Primary, but leading either Rice or Blackmon in hypothetical General Election matchups. There, he leads Blackmon with 53% support to 29%.
“Ken Welch has built a strong coalition for his historic candidacy for St Pete Mayor. Few candidates have ever been as prepared to lead the city,” said Cesar Fernandez, who managed current Mayor Rick Kriseman‘s campaign in 2013. “Ken will have all of the momentum going into the runoff and will become the next Mayor of the city. Voters sent a clear message tonight that they want a Mayor that will continue the progress that Rick Kriseman built over the last 8 years.”
Kriseman, who endorsed Welch as his successor, thanked all candidates in a statement following election results, without mentioning any by name.
“Congratulations to the two candidates advancing in this year’s mayoral election and to the successful council candidates,” he wrote on social media. “Thank you to all who threw their hat in the ring in order to make St. Petersburg an even better and sunnier place to live, work and play. I encourage all voters to remain engaged over the coming months, research the candidates, and make well-informed decisions about St. Pete’s future.”