The first debate in the St. Petersburg mayoral General Election, which was scheduled for Wednesday night, has been postponed.
The debate, hosted by the Tampa Bay Chamber and WFLA, was originally scheduled to be an in-person event. That changed when candidate Ken Welch contracted COVID-19, a diagnosis he announced Saturday evening. Although his campaign offered to attend a virtual debate, opponent Robert Blackmon refused, insisting on a face-to-face debate.
In a statement sent to Florida Politics, Blackmon said he wants nothing more than to debate Welch, but referenced a virtual debate among the Primary candidates hosted by Bay News 9 and the Tampa Bay Times where Welch dropped the call. While the drop was attributed to Welch’s internet connection failing, Blackmon claimed Welch chose to leave the debate to escape pressing questions.
To note, Welch was allowed to later record a small clip answering the questions he missed.
“I want nothing more than to debate Commissioner Welch. I want to talk about the issues facing St. Pete, which he hasn’t addressed since he first ran for office in 1998. In the sole Primary Zoom debate, Commissioner Welch simply dropped out of the meeting once I started pressing him on his record,” Blackmon said in a statement to Florida Politics.
“The people deserve the clarity on candidate positions that only an in person debate can provide. I welcome that debate anytime, anyplace. I look forward to it once Commissioner Welch is well again and wish him a speedy recovery.”
An alternative date has not yet been set for the debate.
“It’s unfortunate my opponent chose to reschedule tomorrow’s Tampa Bay Chamber debate,” Welch, a former Pinellas County Commissioner, said in a statement. “I’ve been looking forward to discussing ways we will bring inclusive progress to St. Pete and highlight the incredible divides between our leadership strategies on St. Pete’s next chapter.”
The two candidates are running to replace term-limited Mayor Rick Kriseman, who endorsed Welch, the current frontrunner in the race.
On Wednesday, former candidate and City Council member Darden Rice announced her support for Welch — perhaps his most important endorsement to date. Rice came in third place in the Primary Election, collecting nearly 17% of the vote.
Welch finished first in a crowded Primary Election Aug. 24 with 39% of the vote, and leads polls in the General Election. Blackmon, a current City Council member, clenched the No. 2 spot with 29%.
A poll taken just days before last month’s Primary showed Welch leading Blackmon in a hypothetical General Election with 53% support to Blackmon’s 29%, a 24-point deficit for Blackmon.
While the race is nonpartisan — candidates’ political affiliations don’t appear on the ballot — it’s no secret where they align, putting Republican Blackmon at a statistical disadvantage in a county with a strong Democratic lean.