Joe Henderson: Mayor’s race gives St. Pete voters contrasting choices

blackmon welch
What to do about Tropicana Field and affordable housing are just two of the top issues facing St. Pete's next Mayor.

If St. Petersburg voters wanted a clear choice in the race to elect their next Mayor, they have one based on Tuesday’s Primary Election results. The two men who face each other in the General Election on Nov. 2 couldn’t be more different.

Ken Welch, who received the most votes Tuesday with 39%, is old-line St. Petersburg. He grew up in the Gas Plant area, where nearly four decades ago the City Council decided to place what now is Tropicana Field.

As Welch notes on his website, he witnessed “the uprooting of hundreds of businesses, homes, and churches” in hopes the city would attract a Major League Baseball team.

Planners took his grandfather’s woodyard as part of the Interstate 175 construction project. Many now see that 1.3-mile road that cuts through the heart of St. Petersburg as a racial dividing line between Black and White areas of the city.

If Welch wins, he’ll be the city’s first Black Mayor.

But the St. Petersburg where Welch grew up also has changed in many positive ways. That’s where Robert Blackmon, Welch’s opponent in November, comes in.

He finished second in the Primary with about 29% of the vote.

Like Welch, Blackmon is a native of St. Petersburg, but the similarities stop there.

Welch served 20 years on the Pinellas County Commission, but Blackmon has less than two years on the St. Pete City Council. He was known as someone who didn’t always play nice with city leaders.

Welch is 56 years old and either a GenXer or a Baby Boomer, depending on how you read those things. Blackmon is 32 and a Millennial, and much of St. Petersburg today is trending in that direction.

Although the election is allegedly nonpartisan, Welch is a Democrat, and Blackmon is Republican. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in St. Petersburg nearly 2-1, but there also is a large number of independent voters. Blackmon will need to do extremely well there to have a realistic chance of winning.

Both candidates say they want to create opportunities for growth and inclusion, which brings us back to Tropicana Field.

The Rays’ lease expires in 2027, which is just around the corner considering how long it takes to finance and build a new stadium (highly unlikely). Or, the new Mayor could face the Rays’ demand to become a half-season tenant in a new stadium and share the team with Montreal.

Extraordinarily, completely, utterly unlikely.

While that drama plays out — and with Tampa still lurking as a possible relocation option for the Rays — the defining issue of the new Mayor’s term would be how to develop the Trop site.

That decision is everything for the future of St. Petersburg over the next half-century, at least.

Welch would see this as a chance to improve the overall economy for the city and as a chance to heal the racial wounds from when Black residents were displaced to build the stadium. He’ll have to convince voters, though, that his ideas are best for the future and not just about making up for the past.

Blackmon’s background is in real estate and development, and supporters like how he thinks outside the box. Affordable housing is a major issue in St. Petersburg, and Blackmon has been an outspoken proponent of addressing that.

When the city wanted to demolish the crumbling Science Center as a possible site for wastewater treatment, Blackmon fought to save the building. He had bipartisan support in that effort, including from Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who endorsed Welch.

Now, after a $3 million federal grant and another $500,000 from the state, the building will be restored to its original education purpose.

Both candidates have a little more than two months to make their case before the Nov. 2 General Election. The one who does that best gets to lead a transformative, vibrant city into the next chapter.

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.


One comment

  • Ron Ogden

    August 25, 2021 at 3:09 pm

    For “transformative, vibrant” read “shockingly expensive, headlong and divided.” Increasingly, the rest of Pinellas–where most of the people live–sees St. Petersburg as out of touch, heedless and experimental. St. Petersburg has always been a famously introspective community: anywhere beyond Snell Isle on the one hand or Jungle Prada on the other was terra incognita. But now it has gotten just ridiculous.

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