St. Pete mayoral candidates Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon squared off Tuesday night on some of the top issues ahead of Election Day on Nov. 2.
BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — What was once a field of eight candidates vying to be St. Pete’s next mayor has been pared down to two, as Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon squared off Oct. 19 in the final mayoral debate before Election Day.
Spectrum Bay News 9 and the Tampa Bay Times hosted the event with Bay News 9 anchor Holly Gregory and Tampa Bay Times political editor Steve Contorno serving as moderators. The candidates took turns fielding various questions — some sent in from Bay News 9 viewers –and sniping at each other.
Welch, a third-generation St. Pete resident, said he wanted to make sure that the growth in the city “is actually progress for every part of our community.”
“I bring a track record of accomplishments of working with people all across our community,” he said, “to move our community forward. I’ve worked in the corporate sector, I’ve worked in family businesses, and I’ve worked as a county commissioner and a representative of the Florida Association of Counties.”
St. Pete native and current City Councilmember Blackmon said he is eager to present his ideas for Tropicana Field redevelopment, affordable housing, environment, and infrastructure, among other issues.
Right off the bat, the candidates were asked how they would respond to a stark scenario that has already occurred too many times: a white police officer has just shot an unarmed Black teenager, and footage of this police response is going viral. An activist group is calling for the immediate arrest of the officer and for the bodycam footage to be released, as national news outlets have picked up the story.
Welch, who has served five terms on the Pinellas County Commission, said he would respond the same way he watched his father respond as a city councilman — he would be visible on the scene.
“I would be out in the community — the community that knows me, the community that I’ve worked in, the community that I responded to this summer when there were shootings — by calling the community together,” he stated. “I did that this summer in response to 13 shootings, and we had two youth summits to talk directly to the citizens about what was happening. I’d also talk directly to the city council members, to leaders in the community, and of course, to Chief [Anthony] Holloway.”
Blackmon said he’d want to immediately get to the scene and debrief with the police chief, just as he’s done as a city council member, and get to the bottom of what occurred.
“We need to get facts, and we need to make sure that we keep the situation calm,” he said. “We don’t know if it was justified or not; we need to make sure cooler heads prevail until we can get the situation taken care of.”
As the city has seen 28 homicides so far this year, the candidates offered their thoughts on curbing this violence.
“In the short term, we need more policing,” Blackmon said. “We need officers on the streets in neighborhoods because if you’ve taken that decision and that choice to take a life, it’s too late for you. And we need to make sure that those who violate protocol when they take a life, that justice is served.”
Welch said what young people want is opportunity in their urban community, and through youth summits and talks with young entrepreneurs, he hopes to provide these young people with a path to a better life.
Regarding how to curb the ongoing problem of drug sales and violence in south St. Pete, Blackmon believes a strong police presence in the neighborhoods is vital. Welch explained that he has spoken with juveniles that have been arrested for drug sales and noted they all say that “they did not see a link to the opportunity.” Welch went on, saying they get “caught up in the hype,” like videos and rap songs that made them believe they could get away with this lifestyle.
“We need opportunities in the community,” he said. “We also need consequences, and it has to be accountability from all, including the young people, the families, and law enforcement as well.”
Concerning the rising housing costs in the city, Welch said he has been at work creating a funding source for affordable housing, which now has over $100 million due to the Penny for Pinellas project. He also wants to look at the city procedures for planning and permits and push for zoning that would allow more duplexes and triplexes.
Blackmon responded by informing Welch that city council had already moved on the process of implementing such zoning last week, and he’d be happy to fill Welch in with his notes, to which Welch retorted drily: “It’s been a year, Robert,” referencing the amount of time it has taken.
Blackmon went on to say that “we need to get people off the rental roller-coaster” and allow for homeownership. He’d also want to implement a city-wide, city-backed mortgage program and focus on buying old condo units instead of building new ones.
Though Blackmon has been successful in real estate, he said there would be no conflict of interest in his duties as mayor and business ventures.
“I view the job of city council and mayor as just that — a public service,” he said. “I want to get it, fix some problems, and get back out. My opponent, for over 20 years, has relied on the government’s dime as his sole source of income.”
Welch immediately told Blackmon he had his facts wrong and explained that he has worked in the private sector, in technology and finance for 20 years with corporations such as Florida Power, Raymond James, and St. Pete College, and he also has experience in family businesses.
“I’ve worked in the private sector just as long as I’ve been a county commissioner,” he said.
Concerning the way Gov. Ron DeSantis has led Florida through the COVID-19 pandemic, Welch said he believed the governor’s approach “could have been a lot better,” emphasizing the benefit and importance of a science-based approach, which “should not be partisan.”
Blackmon chose to dodge the question in his initial response, explaining instead how he fought against the shutdowns when he believed they went on too long, so moderator Contorno had to ask him again to provide an answer specific to the query.
“We did what we could on the local level,” he answered. “I’m not going to second-guess somebody whose job I’m not running for.”
The candidates shared their thoughts on how the city should proceed with development projects in flood-prone areas, and Welch believes St. Pete and Pinellas County will be the prototypes of how we adapt to sea-level rise on the west coast of Florida.
“With 40 percent of St. Pete now in a coastal high hazard area, we have to use technology, we have to decide where we want to build, where we won’t build, and where we want to incentivize new growth,” he said.
Blackmon said he led the charge on the council to ensure that there is development in the high-hazard areas.
“That’s because it was smart growth, and that’s exactly what we need,” he said, explaining that special requirements had to be met for development in such areas.
Each candidate accused the other of political flip-flopping, as Blackmon called out Welch for running as a Democrat and a Republican at different times in his career, and while Welch promptly pointed out that Blackmon sent out two different mailers — one touting himself as a progressive and one as a conservative.
“I’m not going to rely on endorsements,” Blackmon said in his closing comments. “I’m not going to rely on past records from 15 or 20 years ago. I’m going to rely on common sense. I’m going to rely on judgment. And I’m also going to rely on you, the people.”
Welch noted that he brings a track record of accomplishments and partnerships throughout the community.
“I’m glad that my endorsers look like our community,” he said. “It’s not a single party; it’s folks from both parties — Black, white, straight, LGBTQ, folks of faith, folks of no faith. That’s what my team looks like because that’s what our city looks like.”
Election Day is Nov. 2. Voters can find their polling location on the Pinellas County Supervisor of Election’s website.