Winners and Losers emerging from St. Petersburg’s municipal elections

winners and losers
You win some, you lose some.

The votes have been counted and winners have been announced. Behind the scenes, though, are a host of other winners and losers. From campaign staff and political parties, to voter interests and community priorities, local elections create winners and losers beyond results on the ballot.

Florida Politics analyzed who worked on what, how candidates’ elections will impact the community, what changes to charter amendments will or would have meant to the community, and how voters’ decisions affect all of the relevant players and stakeholders. Below is our election roundup of people, issues and groups that came out on top, those that suffered a loss, and others that see a mixed bag.

Winners

Team Ken Welch: It was a long road to get Welch to a victorious Election Night, and on the official path toward becoming St. Petersburg’s first Black Mayor. And it took a team of talented political pros to help pull it off.

Campaign Manager Stephanie Owens and General Consultant Reggie Cardozo led the charge, bringing with them cumulative decades of experience on the campaign trail. Together they crafted a campaign that emphasized Welch’s storied political career and deftly avoided mudslinging, unless it was to defend easily defendable accusations or outright misrepresentations.

Ashley Bauman joined the team in July, when she landed a job at public affairs firm Mercury as a senior vice president in the group’s Florida office. She brought with her a wealth of PR prowess after leading communications for the city of Tampa under both former Mayor Bob Buckhorn and current Mayor Jane Castor. Her skill helped the team land plenty of earned media and drive conversation.

Yolanda Brown with Brown Consulting Services led Welch’s finance efforts, helping the now-Mayor-Elect raise more than $1 million for his landmark victory.

Field Director Kevin O’Hare led the team’s voter outreach efforts, which by Election Day, saw more than 100,000 voter contacts. O’Hare had help with the heavy lift from field organizers Courtney Miller, Bailey Gorman and Vince Cocks.

Welch’s team also got a General Election boost from Doyle Walsh, a former legislative aide to County Commissioner Janet Long, who served as the team’s senior adviser.

Scott Pollenz led a robust social media campaign that kept Facebook engagements fresh and included top-notch graphics to make Welch look good, a key component in modern day campaigning.

There was also a talented team of consultants fueling the machine in the background, including John Rowley on paid media and direct mail, Keith Frederick as the team’s pollster, Travis Peterson on targeted mail campaigns and Ana Breedlove as digital consultant.

Ray Tampa and Raechel Garafalo handled voter outreach for the team; Marieke McArthur managed scheduling; and Felonice Merriman created visuals.

It often takes a village to land St. Pete’s top elected post, and Welch had one.

Pinellas County Democrats: The Mayor’s race and four City Council contests on Tuesday’s ballot were nonpartisan, but that doesn’t mean partisianship took a back seat. The Pinellas County Democratic Party, working to elect Welch, added 30,000 door-knocks to the overall Welch effort.

Beyond the top-of-ticket win, it was a banner night for Democrats. The party reclaimed a seat on City Council with Copley Gerdes’ election over Republican Bobbie Shay Lee in District 1. City Council member Robert Blackmon won the district just two years ago, adding a second Republican to the eight member board. When Gerdes is sworn in Jan. 6, City Council will again be comprised of seven Democrats and one Republican. That was also accomplished through a victory in District 4 with former prosecutor Lisset Hanewicz besting Tom Mullins to keep Darden Rice’s seat blue. And Richie Floyd narrowly overcame former City Council member Jeff Danner to keep Amy Foster’s District 8 seat in Democratic hands.

Every winning candidate Tuesday night is a registered Democrat.

Rick Kriseman: As he closes out his second and final term in office, Kriseman can rest assured his legacy will continue in the way he wanted, through Welch. Kriseman backed Welch early, choosing him over Rice who had, until she began quietly campaigning for Mayor, been an ally on City Council.

Welch shares many of the same priorities as his predecessor, on things ranging from equity to affordable housing. But Welch will bring a fresh set of eyes to the Mayor’s office and will take the torch from Kriseman on issues Kriseman wasn’t able to fulfill — determining the future of the Tampa Bay Rays and the redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site.

The Gerdes legacy: Former City Council member Charlie Gerdes left office two years ago, handing off the seat to Blackmon. Now, there’s a new Gerdes in town — his son, Copley Gerdes.

The elder Gerdes established himself as a lovable elected official, making friendships throughout the city regardless of political leanings. He brought a thoughtful approach to the dais during his eight years on the Council, and there’s no reason to believe his son will be any different.

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus: No surprise here. The Pinellas County SOE often lands on our post-election list of winners. As with previous elections, the office had results from mail ballots dropped in minutes. Those results alone were able to show City Council member Gina Driscoll the clear winner in District 6 even before any precinct votes were counted.

Precinct results started coming in shortly after and, before 8 p.m., less than one hour after polls closed, all precinct votes were counted. Only one race had a late call — Floyd’s race — as the SOE processed about 2,000 mail ballots that required signature verification. But they communicated the count and had it done by about 10 p.m.

Beyond that, Election Day went off without a hitch, with no reports of malfunctions, long lines or other issues at polling places. Pinellas knows how to do elections right.

Sierra Club: Every single candidate the pro-environment, pro-social justice group endorsed this election emerged victorious Tuesday night. Those include Welch, Gerdes, Hanewicz, Driscoll, and Floyd.

Losing with dignity: He didn’t win, so one can’t really put Blackmon into the winner’s category entirely, but he showed grace in defeat, which is worth a nod.

Shortly after polls closed and Welch was declared Mayor-elect, Blackmon took the stage at Ringside Cafe to deliver a concession speech. Throughout the campaign, and particularly in the waning weeks, Blackmon had been hard on his opponent, lobbing everything but the kitchen sink his way. But on Tuesday night, Blackmon congratulated Welch on the win and acknowledged the historic change Welch’s administration will bring to the city.

“It goes to show the diversity of the city,” Blackmon said.

Unions: City Council races this year were largely quiet, but at least one headline-grabbing scandal emerged facing City Council District 4 candidate Mullins. Mullins sent campaign mailers to voters and had statements on his campaign website criticizing unions, including a claim that union staff was overpaid above private market benchmarks.

Unions quickly pounced, and so did Mullins’ opponent, Hanewicz. After Tuesday’s results, unions now have a candidate they trust to back them.

Going high: Welch and his team had ample opportunity to bash Blackmon, but they avoided the low-hanging fruit and it paid off. Welch’s success might have not depended on negative campaigning — he polled well ahead of Blackmon even before the Primary election was over. But he may have also taken some Primary Election campaigning as a cautionary tale.

Rice, who finished third in the Primary, started seeing polling numbers drop off after her campaign sent mailers to voters attempting to tie Welch, a Democrat who served as a Joe Biden delegate, to former President Donald Trump. While those claims were disingenuous, likely leading to voters’ distaste for the effort, Welch had ammunition that was a bit less nuanced that he largely left on the table.

Welch’s campaign avoided slapping screen shots of old Facebook posts from Blackmon with cringe-worthy comments demeaning women and others. Instead of pouncing, they let the news cycle handle it and let voters draw their own conclusions.

Rene Flowers: While not an official member of Welch’s campaign team, Flowers has been a trusted adviser to Welch and played a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in his victory. She endorsed him early, sung his praises on social media frequently and emerged Tuesday night a happy ally.

And it’s a full-circle win for Flowers. Just last year Welch served in a similar behind-the-scenes roll when Flowers was running, ultimately successfully, to succeed him on the County Commission. While Welch stayed out of the race in the Primary, he offered his support once Flowers reached the General.

Adam Smith: We left Smith out of the rundown of the mighty team Welch, but he was, indeed, a member of the early staff who helped pave the way to victory. Smith had been running communications before leaving for another gig with Tampa Mayor Castor and passing the torch to Bauman.

His presence was largely absent from the campaign trail after July, though his new boss did offer her own endorsement, but Smith’s presence at Welch’s victory party Tuesday night shows he was always still watching, and his early influence set the tone.

Mixed Bag

Progressives: St. Pete’s Democratic Party has been facing a crisis within itself. Earlier this year, a dust-up in the party apparatus led to a change in leadership, with the resignation of former Party Chair Barbara Scott, an establishment Democrat, and the election of Lucinda Johnston to replace her. Johnston is a progressive who backed Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic Presidential Preference Primary.

That split showed up again Tuesday. Progressives scored a win with Floyd’s election over Danner in District 8. But they took a hit when newcomer Mhariel Summers failed to gain traction against fellow Democrat Driscoll in District 6. Summers faced an uphill battle against an incumbent, and she failed to attract the campaign cash needed to get it done. But progressives lined up behind her anyway. It didn’t work.

Equity: Two amendments aimed at boosting equity within the city failed at the ballot box. One would have, among other things, established a criteria for creating more equity within the city and a leadership position in city government to implement it. Another would have funded that mission.

But the city elected its first Black Mayor, one who has campaigned, at least in part, on increasing equity, particularly in the long-struggling Black communities on the Southside. Welch made history Tuesday night, and if his campaign promises hold up, he could usher in improvements in communities that have long clamored equitable access to opportunity.

Losers

Republicans: Just, ouch. None of their candidates won, and none were even all that close. Blackmon got trounced by nearly 21 percentage points at the top of the ticket, a huge margin for what was the highest-profile race of the cycle. Further down ballot, Lee lost in District 1 by a nearly 8-point margin. Mullins, in District 4, took a nearly 10-point beating. The only truly close race of the evening, in District 8, didn’t even include a Republican or conservative candidate.

The message for Republicans in St. Pete seems pretty clear at this point — y’all just can’t play anymore in a city with about 38,000 more Democrats than Republicans.

Barry Edwards: Blackmon was Edwards’ guy, both this election and two years ago when Blackmon secured a spot on City Council. Edwards wasn’t an official campaign staffer for Blackmon, but he has long served as a trusted adviser. Blackmon’s campaign, and its failure to tap into any traction post-Primary, showed many weaknesses. While Blackmon was outspent, by a lot, his campaign missed the mark on attracting earned media and seemed to focus too heavily on attacking his opponent rather than touting policy.

Edwards, a veteran campaign operative, has found success through his work with Sen. Darryl Rouson, but the whiff on Blackmon shows he might be struggling with advising a less-rooted politico, like Blackmon.

Underdogs: Seven charter amendments appeared on the ballot, the first of which proposed a change to the way St. Pete voters elect City Council members.

Currently, St. Pete voters can only cast a ballot in the Primary Election for candidates in their assigned district. In the General Election, the single-member districts open to citywide voting.

The proposal was touted as a way to keep in-district voters’ voices from being out done in the General Election, increase minority representation on Council, and drive down election spending. Over the past 15 years, Black candidates for City Council have lost every General Election when running against a White candidate, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Further, by eliminating the need to reach out-of-district voters, candidates wouldn’t have to spend as much money to get to victory, allowing candidates who don’t have the means to self-fund campaigns broader access to successful election bids.

But voters rejected the proposal, maintaining the status quo and clearly sending the message that holding candidates accountable to the whole city is crucial, even if it comes at the expense of minority representation.

Jumping the gun: On paper, the time seemed right for Blackmon. The incumbent Mayor was leaving office. A new Mayor has a good shot at winning a second term, fueled in a second election by the power of incumbency, so taking a pass on this year’s election likely would have put any mayoral calculous off for eight years, more time than Blackman would have in his current office. And the mayoral race, when Blackmon entered it, was ripe for a business-minded conservative who could play to moderates — a trait that helped Blackmon secure a City Council win just two years ago.

Bus his limited two years on Council — the only he has served in elected office — showed throughout his campaign, which lacked the cohesive model proven successful in any election. Blackmon relied heavily on friends and family to run his campaign, avoiding hiring professional staff to launch enough of a robust ground game to woo voters in a blue city to go with a red guy.

Whether that weakness would have evaporated if he ran after gaining more experience in politics may never be fully clear. But what is clear is it’s very possible his rookie status held him back.

Rick Baker: For years, the former Mayor wielded significant power in St. Pete politics. That influence took a hit four years ago when he lost his own battle to reclaim the Mayor’s office, but Blackmon’s defeat — a candidate he frequently went to bat for as a local surrogate — only further dinged the man who was once St. Pete’s darling.

Baker’s backing in the race even four years ago could have carried significant weight. Blackmon’s loss suggests Baker’s influence in the city is waning. That’s likely less about his abilities in politics and more about the city’s shifting demographics away from conservative, older leaders. But it’s still got to sting.

Bipartisanship/nonpartisanship: These two go hand in hand, but they are uniquely separate.

Let’s start first by looking at Blackmon’s attempt to paint himself as a candidate able to work well regardless of political leanings. He frequently championed his endorsements from Baker, a well-known conservative, and former City Council member Kathleen Ford on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Further, Blackmon sent similar mailers, with similar sentiments, to two different sets of voters. On one, sent to Republican voters, the mailers played up conservative talking points. The other, sent to Democrats, announced Blackmon in large font as a progressive. No one was buying that he could be both.

On the issue of nonpartisanship, there are the election results as a whole. Not a single Republican won Tuesday night. Democrats cleaned house. The only legitimately nonpartisan candidate on the ballot, NPA Danner, lost, even if narrowly.

Yet the races, all of them, were supposed to be nonpartisan. If anyone still thinks that classification is anything other than in-name-only, they’re kidding themselves.

St. Pete’s mission: The last of seven proposed charter amendments would have added a preamble to St. Pete’s charter, declaring St. Pete as a city of opportunity and placing emphasis on things St. Pete has become known for, such as the arts and equity.

The amendment went up in smoke.

While most current elected officials in St. Pete, and those who will take office in January, will likely encapsulate those ideals in their vision and actions, St. Pete voters sent a message Tuesday that they don’t want them enshrined in the charter.

Voter turnout: After all the votes were counted, turnout landed at about 36%. While that’s not entirely surprising given St. Pete’s municipal election are held on off-years when turnout historically lags, this year’s turnout didn’t match four years ago, when turnout was 40%.

It’s another possible catalyst for discussions about whether to change St. Pete’s election cycle to even years. Doing that would put city elections on the same ballot as presidential candidates some years, and higher-profile congressional races in others.

But it would put local candidates at the bottom of the ballot, something some argue would cause voters to skip them.

Either way, those elected Tuesday night will represent 100% of St. Pete’s residents, but they were chosen by just 36% of those registered to vote.

New businesses: As of the current count, voters rejected an extension to St. Pete’s economic incentives that allow tax incentives for new businesses to locate in the city or existing businesses to expand, as long as doing so meets certain benchmarks like creating jobs.

By a margin of just 93 votes, voters appear to have rejected the sole referendum on Tuesday’s ballot asking to expand for 10 years the city’s existing incentives program. The question is headed for a recount. Even if the results flop as a result, it’s still clear voters’ appetite for taxpayer-funded subsidies for businesses, often large ones with deep pockets, is waning.

For some that might be a win. But for those businesses, it’s a major red flag.

Facebook skeletons: Scrub that social media folks. That’s the lesson Blackmon might have learned after Facebook comments he posted in his early 20s resurfaced painting an unflattering picture of a young man with some pretty crude jokes.

In one post, Blackmon commented on a family he spotted in the airport, describing them, including a 3-year old girl, as “three generations of sluts on a plane.” Yikes.

Whether those comments sealed Blackmon’s fate is a big question mark. His nearly 21-point loss suggests he might not have enjoyed a win even if his socials were squeaky clean, but it sure didn’t help.

Kathleen Ford: Ford came out early in support of Blackmon. His loss isn’t what lands her here, and this will be brief. What gets Ford into the L column is simple. She was already irrelevant. Her endorsement’s failure to move the needle for her chosen candidate only further proves it.

Blackmon’s superlative: He was the youngest person ever elected to City Council and would have been the youngest Mayor. Not only did he lose the Mayor’s race, he got bounced from his status on Council. Floyd will now hold the distinction as the youngest City Council member ever elected.

Both were 30 when they won their respective districts, but Floyd is a younger 30.

Peter Schorsch

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises Media and is the publisher of FloridaPolitics.com, INFLUENCE Magazine, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.


One comment

  • Ron Ogden

    November 4, 2021 at 7:54 am

    Not quite the only losers, Peter. The other one was the Pinellas Democratic Party. While a paltry third of its more rambunctious fans showed up Tuesday–admittedly enough to beat the Republicans–countywide registration figures actually showed the Demis LOST several hundred voters in the past few weeks and that the Demis one-time lead of thousands has dwindled away to nothing. Most seem to have gone independent. Look ahead to a bifurcated county–St. Pete at maybe 300,000 people engaged in a constant search for someone to blame for their woes, versus the 600,000+ in the rest of the county who merely want good government–the kind that Blackmon et al would have provided the city. Oh! and take your cue from CNN–Donald J. Trump had NOTHING to do with it. Repeat it over and over again.

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