Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch and St. Petersburg City Council member Robert Blackmon will top St. Petersburg’s municipal election ballot Tuesday as the two enter the final hours of their race for Mayor.
Regardless of who wins, the results will mean St. Pete constituents have a new Mayor, with incumbent Rick Kriseman leaving office because of term limits.
If Welch wins, he will be the city’s first Black Mayor. A Blackmon victory would usher in the city’s youngest Mayor.
The General Election race has been relatively quiet compared to the crowded Primary race that concluded in late August with Welch securing the top spot more than 10 percentage points ahead of second-place finisher Blackmon.
While that race featured heated attack mailers against Welch from then-candidate Darden Rice, the current District 4 City Council member who finished third in the mayoral Primary, the race between Welch and Blackmon has featured far fewer direct attacks, with the majority of the mudslinging happening from the debate stage, not in voters’ mailboxes.
Voters face a decision in the race between two fundamentally different candidates. Welch is a veteran politician with more than two decades of experience serving from the Pinellas County dais. Blackmon, meanwhile, is a first-term City Council member with just two years under his belt as an elected official.
And while the race is technically nonpartisan — the candidates’ party affiliations won’t appear on the ballot — Welch is a registered Democrat while Blackmon is a member of the GOP.
Their partisan affiliations are most clear in the candidates’ endorsements. Welch boasts support from prominent local Democrats, including a majority of the sitting City Council and several of his former colleagues on the County Commission. He also has nods from Kriseman, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, all regionally well-known Democrats.
Blackmon, meanwhile, has collected support from area Republicans, including state Reps. Nick DiCeglie and Jackie Toledo, former state Reps. Larry Ahern, Jim Frische and Rudy Bradley, Pinellas County School Board member and former St. Pete City Council member Bill Dudley and Clearwater Vice Mayor Doreen Caudell, among others.
Yet, the candidates’ campaign trail talking points have been decidedly less partisan. Both have laid out visions for redevelopment at the Tropicana Field site that envisions honoring the Black community displaced by the stadium’s original construction and economic development that will benefit both that community and the city as a whole. Both have expressed commitments to affordable housing, access to jobs, and support for small businesses.
But with anything, the devil’s in the details. Welch’s commitment to equity at the Trop site is more robust — and more personal. Welch’s own family was among those displaced. And, as potentially the first Black Mayor of St. Pete, Welch’s ability to speak on the issue has seemed more genuine.
Blackmon also faced backlash among some voters for past decisions he made as a real estate investor to evict tenants at properties he owned, including a South St. Pete apartment complex where some residents behind only slightly on rent were served eviction notices, at least initially.
He also faced blowback from Welch and other critics over past social media comments, one referring to a family of women, including a 3-year-old girl, as a “generation of sluts on a plane.” While not directly admitting he made the remarks, Blackmon had since apologized, noting his age when making them — he was in his early 20s — was no excuse.
But Welch has faced some criticism, too, most notably over his past stance on LGBTQ issues. In 1995, Welch penned a letter to the editor in the then-St. Petersburg Times calling the National Organization for Women a “far political left” group and wrote that he was part of the “so-called Christian Right” that interpreted the Bible as “clearly pro-family and pro-life.”
Welch had defended past stances, noting he supported Pinellas County’s creation of a Domestic Partnership Registry before same-sex marriage became the law of the land and has since evolved on the issue.
LGBTQ rights groups have clearly noticed, with groups such as Equality Florida and the Stonewall Democrats offering endorsements.
Welch heads into Tuesday’s election with a clear advantage. As a registered Democrat, he’ll enjoy a statistical edge; St. Petersburg has more than 88,000 registered Democrats, far outnumbering its fewer than 50,000 Republicans.
He also is the clear favorite, according to polls.
The most recent St. Pete Polls survey showed Welch with a commanding lead over Blackmon, with 53% support to Blackmon’s 36%. The poll, taken in September, showed just 11% of voters were still undecided, not enough to make up the deficit for Blackmon or even put him within the margin of error.
Polls open at 7 a.m. Tuesday and remain open until 7 p.m. Any eligible voter in line at their polling place by 7 p.m. may cast a ballot.
Voters will also decide Tuesday on four City Council races, all but one for new members, and seven proposed charter amendments.