St. Petersburg mayoral candidates Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon sparred Tuesday night on a range of topics, including policing, endorsements and campaign fundraising, hinting at rising tension as Election Day closes in.
The pair butted heads at a debate hosted by The Tampa Bay Times and Spectrum Bay New 9, set two weeks before the citywide General Election.
The first squabble occurred early in the debate, when the pair were tasked with addressing the city’s rise in homicides, including issues of public safety and police brutality.
The first question candidates faced asked how they would handle a certain scenario: A White police office shooting an unarmed Black teenager.
Welch, who would be the city’s first Black Mayor if elected, fielded the question first, noting he would immediately be out in the community, calling for them to come together.
“I wouldn’t be a stranger to the community,” Welch said, noting that he’s handled scenarios like this before, including by meeting with members of the community following a spree of 13 shootings this summer.
Blackmon said he’d visit the scene immediately to be debriefed on the situation. He used pointed language, calling such a scenario “a murder,” language anti-police brutality activists have called for in lieu of the oft-used “officer-involved shooting.” But he seemed to walk that back, following up with a statement some may argue places blame for such a shooting on the victim. He said the city needs to “give people opportunities so that nobody is having to get in these situations in the first place.”
Blackmon, who serves on the St. Pete City Council, came in with a hit on out-going Mayor Rick Kriseman, who has endorsed Welch as his successor.
“Last year, when our Mayor, who has endorsed my opponent, made our police chief taken a knee with protesters — to make an African American man take a knee against his will was wrong,” Blackmon said. “When our police force is doing the best job they can under adverse circumstances, we need to represent them and applaud their works, not make them bow down when they’ve done nothing wrong.”
Welch fired back, saying that Blackmon’s comment was “just condescending.”
“Chief Holloway would not have taken a knee if he didn’t want to. He’s a man, and he made that decision,” Welch said.
During the back and forth, Blackmon fired a shot at Welch over an endorsement from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, claiming it came some 16 years prior. Welch, given an opportunity to respond, clarified that Gualtieri endorsed him this year, for this election.
“Facts matter,” Welch said.
Blackmon, however, said Welch misinterpreted his point. Blackmon said he was talking about “old endorsements from 15-16 years ago” to imply Welch was stuck in the past, in in reference to Welch telling the anecdote about Rick Baker previously during the debate.
The duo also argued about campaign contributions, with Welch raising nearly double that of Blackmon since launching their respective campaigns, Welch has raised $995,428 and Blackmon has collected $510,310.
Blackmon targeted Welch’s donors, criticizing donations from out-of-town developers.
“We need to look at how much money you’ve gotten from Miami, New York developers, a magnitude of five or 10 to one,” Blackmon said. “I’ve been fighting for the people of our city. I’m not taking out-of-town dollars.”
Welch has received donations from out-of-town developers. His affiliated political committee, Pelican PAC, reported a $25,000 contribution from Metro Development Group LLC and a $15,000 drop from developer Daniel Kodsi, CEO of Royal Palm Companies, in the month of September alone.
But Blackmon has also received high-value donations from developers. His political committee, Prosperous St. Pete, reported a $10,000 donation from Clearwater-based real estate development company TMJ Properties and a $1,000 donation from Coral Sky Development, based in Tallahassee.
In response to Blackmon’s criticism, Welch referenced Darden Rice’s campaign during the Primary Election, saying he “did what I had to do to be competitive.” Rice was the top fundraiser in the Primary, but was ousted after collecting the third most votes.
“I was out-raised in the primary, by hundreds of thousands of dollars. So I did what I had to do to be competitive, but I was far out-raised by another candidate,” Welch said. “The folks who donated to the campaign, many have donated to you as well, including the person who’s evicting tenants right now.”
“Folks know that I will be accountable, and even the Rays — you talked about your meetings with the Rays and then you tried to ding me because they contributed to me while they talked to both of us. They made a determination that I’d be the best person for (the job),” Welch continued, referencing a $50,000 donation from the Tampa Bay Rays his political committee received in September.
The pair continued the argument over a specific donor, TJM Properties, which donated $10,000 to Blackmon’s campaign. The developer came under fire last week by the St. Pete Tenants Union for giving tenants 15 days notice to vacate Stanton Apartments because of plans to expand the neighboring Cordova Inn, according to WFLA.
Blackmon called Welch “hypocritical” over plans to host a fundraiser at the Cordova Inn, which Welch later changed.
“The hypocrisy here is unbelievable,” Blackmon said. “You know, Commissioner Welch was having a fundraiser at the site where all the tenants were being evicted in downtown St. Pete, he moved at the last minute when he found out that there would be negative press.”
Welch responded, saying his campaign did move it after finding out that the company was planning on evicting tenants.
“My fundraiser was being put on by a group of folks, it was supposed to be at the Cordova. When we found out about the tenants next door, the company that donated $10,000 to you, was starting to evict tenants, in as short as 15 days, I told my staff to move that. I didn’t want to have a fundraiser there. And so those are the facts,” Welch said.
Both campaigns offered statements following the debate.
“In yesterday’s debate we showed why we are going to win on November 2. It was a triumph of ideas over platitudes. We exposed how my opponent isn’t committed to inclusion or progress, and no amount of endorsements or big money, out of state donations will change that. I will never sell out St. Pete, and as Mayor he will bring all of us together to build a St. Pete for All,” Blackmon said.
Ashley Bauman, a campaign spokesperson for Welch, criticized Blackmon’s debate performance, referencing comments Blackmon made Welch rebutted during the debate.
“Last night’s debate proved once again that Commissioner Welch has public service in his heart and has displayed throughout his entire career of public service that he’s committed to serving all of the people of St. Pete through inclusive progress, while Robert Blackmon spent the evening grasping at straws, that he may need to be reminded, are banned in St. Pete,” Bauman said.
The two will go head to head in the upcoming General Election on Nov. 2. Both are running to replace Mayor Kriseman, who is leaving office due to term limits.