St. Petersburg mayoral candidates Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon butted heads Monday night during a debate that raised questions about past controversial comments and current hotbed issues, like the future of the Tampa Bay Rays.
The debate, hosted by WFLA and moderated by anchor Evan Donovan, may have been the most heated yet as the two candidates face the final stretch of the race, with voters heading to the ballot box on Nov. 2.
The pair started hot when asked about the state of the Rays, who are committed to their lease at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season. The Rays are a vital component in discussions on the redevelopment of the Trop lot — the next Mayor will determine how best to redevelop the 86-acre site, with or without the baseball team.
Blackmon said that while he would like to see the Rays continue to play in the city, his hope is dimming, with talk emerging of the Rays moving to a site in Ybor City.
“I need to look at the harsh realities that are constantly evolving on the site; you know that site is the future of economic development for our city. It is where we can put hotel space. It is where we can put office space; we haven’t had an office tower built in downtown St. Pete in my lifetime,” Blackmon said.
He also took aim at Welch, who received a $50,000 donation from the Rays in September.
“My opponent says all the time baseball’s secondary, and then it’s gotten a $50,000 donation from the race just last week,” Blackmon continued. “It’s tough for me. I want to make sure they stay in St Pete. Certainly, that’s my goal, but I’m losing hope.”
Welch fired back at Blackmon, saying he had been “in talks” with Rays’ leadership.
“Look, that’s the same amount the Rays donated to Kriseman years ago. If you look at all the developers, folks who are interested in government who donate, they all have some interests,” Welch said. “But I told the Rays the same thing, and I told you: the priority is jobs, equitable development, and it has to be a fair deal to the city of St. Pete and the taxpayers.”
“I absolutely think that we can keep the Rays in St. Petersburg. Secondary, if we can’t keep them, then certainly Tampa Bay is a next option,” Welch added.
The two were also made to face previous controversial comments, starting with Welch.
Donovan questioned Welch about his 2008 support for a religious exemption to the county’s human rights ordinances to protect LGBTQ people, as well as a 1995 St. Petersburg Times letter to the editor where Welch wrote that he was part of the “so-called Christian Right” in his beliefs on “homosexuality and abortion.” Welch also called the National Organization for Women a “far political left” group in that letter.
In response to his previous comments, Welch said the comments were taken out of context.
“Let me tell you what I do believe,” Welch said. “Right after my comments on that, the LGBTQ community started reaching out, and I started meeting folks … and listening to their lived experiences, and they tell me, well this is why this is important. And so I listened and learned the very next year, I made the motion to add sexual orientation to the countywide human rights ordinance.”
“My story is in 25, 30 years, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve become a very strong ally. I am a person of faith; my faith is not based on hatred and never has. So, that is my story,” Welch concluded.
To note, Welch has nabbed a long list of LGBTQ supporters, including Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who is the first openly gay leader of her city; Rep. Michele Rayner, who announced her support of Welch in the Primary; and St. Pete City Council member Amy Foster, who was one of Welch’s first endorsers. He has also been endorsed by Equality Florida, the Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas County, and the Florida LGBTQ Democratic Caucus.
Blackmon was also faced with previous controversial comments made in 2010 through 2012 on his Facebook page. One disparaging comment referred to a woman as a “b*tch,” and another called three generations of women, including a three-year-old, “sluts.”
“You’re in your 20s; you’re in college; you have a good time. None of that makes it alright,” Blackmon said. “I’m not at all trying to make excuses for past behaviors because wrong is wrong, now or then. I own that, and I apologize for that, but I’m not going to do what my opponent just did and try and explain it away because that was wrong then. All the actions he did, though, was when he was an elected official.”
In the Nov. 2 General Election, the pair will face off after coming out on top in a crowded field in the Aug. 24 Primary Election. They’re running to replace incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman, who is leaving office due to term limits and has endorsed Welch as his successor.