Joe Henderson: The talking is over and it’s time now for St. Pete to vote on its new Mayor

The nine-candidate field will shrink to two after Tuesday's Primary.

The debates and forums are over, and the campaign mailers have found new homes in recycling bins. Now it’s up to the voters.

They go to the polls Tuesday in the Primary Election to choose St. Petersburg’s next Mayor. After the vote-counting finishes, two people from the nine-candidate field will remain for the General Election in November.

Surveys by St. Pete Polls suggest former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch and City Council member Robert Blackmon will be the survivors.

Welch had 37% in the most recent poll, and Blackmon had 27%.

City Council member Darden Rice was a distant third at 17%.

Polls don’t win elections, though, and we all understand the folly of calling a race before the votes are counted. That’s especially true in an election where turnout could be light, and the swing of a few hundred votes could turn things upside down.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that voters returned just 30% of eligible mail-in ballots. That compares to 47% in the 2017 Primary when incumbent Mayor Rick Kreisman and former Mayor Rick Baker were on the ballot, and St. Pete has nearly 20,000 more registered voters than four years ago.

However it turns out, the eventual winner could be breaking new ground.

Welch would be the city’s first Black Mayor. Blackmon would be St. Pete’s first millennial leader, while Rice would be the city’s first openly gay Mayor ever, and its first woman leader since shifting to a strong mayor form of government.

Interestingly, Welch picked up considerable support from the local LGBTQ community, including Rep. Michele Rayner and Council member Amy Foster, who was one of Welch’s first endorsers, and the Pinellas Stonewall Democrats.

We’ll find out if the fateful mailer Rice sent about Welch factored into that. She faced considerable backlash for trying to tie Welch to Donald Trump. That was partly because Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who voted for Trump in 2016 and supported the controversial “anti-riot” bill from Gov. Ron DeSantis, endorsed Welch.

Rice, a popular and effective Council member, dropped sharply in polls after that mailer.

“Some people will do or say anything to win an election. I will not,” Welch said in a statement.

That has been about the only explosive moment of the race so far, though.

Several long-simmering and familiar issues came up during the campaign.

What would the new Mayor do about Tropicana Field and the possible departure of the Tampa Bay Rays?

How would they address St. Pete’s oft-challenging issue of race relations?

St. Pete has transformed into a dynamic and lively city from its former image of God’s waiting room. That change and growth, though, led to skyrocketing rents and housing costs. Which candidate has the best plan to address that troubling issue?

And, of course, the environment always will be an important topic for the city. The recent red tide surge reminded everyone that St. Pete’s pristine beaches could quickly turn into a smelly, polluted mess that drives tourists away.

So, now we wait to see how many of those issues resonated with voters. Even more, we wait to see how many of them will make their voice heard at the ballot box.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


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