As the St. Petersburg general election draws closer, the intensity of the mayoral debates has also increased between candidates Robert Blackmon and Ken Welch.
With just over a month until the Nov. 2 St. Pete general elections, the League of Women Voters and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg hosted the latest mayoral forum Wednesday night. Similar to the city council forum the night before, Judithanne Scourfield McLauchlan, founding director of the Center for Civic engagement at USFSP, moderated the event and USFSP student government leaders Veronica Jimenez, Tara Rosenbaum, and Sean Schrader posed questions to the candidates.
Welch said his top three priorities stem from what he has heard from the community through several forums, along with “driving 1,000 rides as an Uber driver and hearing directly from folks in our community.” He said people care about the same things – housing affordability, making sure neighborhoods are safe and healthy, protecting the environment and strengthening the city’s infrastructure.
“And of course, Tropicana Field is a generational issue that will mark our path going forward generations, and I’m able to bring folks together to make that a success,” Welch added.
Blackmon replied that “we can talk about our priorities in terms of generalizations” and said he also shares affordability, infrastructure, and the Rays as part of his platform. “But I have actual plans of how to move things forward.” Blackmon mentioned Welch driving for Uber to learn what issues are important to the community and stated that after 21 years of public service, Welch should already know what the issues are.
“I know them because I’ve been in the city, and I’ve been on the ground,” said Blackmon.
Blackmon said he has partnered with the state for the second year in a row on a bill to waive affordable housing permitting fees and has also put forth plans for a city-backed mortgage program. “So that every dollar that enters the affordable housing program will remain in the affordable housing program, as opposed to just giving things to developers, so they go away after one unit is built,” he said.
Welch was then asked what he would do to foster small business growth but first wanted to “jump back to Robert’s little dig about 21 years on the (county) commission.”
“You haven’t completed your first city council term, so this might not relate to you,” began Welch. “But after you’ve been elected for five terms, folks start to tell you what they think you want to hear. So, the reason I did Uber and Lyft was to hear directly from people without that filter.”
Welch said what he will do for small businesses is more of what he has already done with the county. He said that in 2018, under his third term as chair of the commission, he realized that only $70,000 out of the small business program was going to small businesses. When hiring a new county administrator, Welch made it known that was a priority, “and so we allocated resources, and we went out into the community and talked to small businesses.”
“We were able to increase that program from $70,000 to $20 million,” said Welch. “Just by being intentional, putting the resources in place, and I will do the same thing as mayor.”
A seemingly softball question then led to another pointed exchange as the candidates were asked what world leader – past or present – they would most like to have dinner with.
Blackmon’s answer was Ross Perot, for “his outside of the box thinking.” Blackmon said the 1992 and 1996 presidential candidate was a “maverick” who entered a race that was said to be unwinnable “late in the game.” Blackmon drew parallels to himself with this, along with Perot’s success in the private sector and desire to infuse fresh ideas into a political campaign.
“My opponent here announced his intentions to run for this office in March of 2018,” added Blackmon. “Almost four years ago. He also said he was going to run in 2009, 2013, and 2017 to test the waters. I stepped up because I saw a need, and I saw a vacuum, much like Ross Perot did.”
Welch replied that he was changing his answer from a political leader to Jesus Christ “because he learned to endure all the falsehoods.
“And you (Blackmon) just named several falsehoods,” said Welch.
Welch said he never announced his intention to run for mayor until 2018. He said he was asked to run but declined because he wanted to finish his work with the County Commission.
With St. Pete on pace for the most homicides in two decades, the candidates were asked what they would do to reduce gun violence.
Welch said he hosted youth summits to solicit feedback, and what came out of that was the idea to upgrade centers inside the community, such as at the Enoch Davis and Child’s Park community centers, and transform them into empowerment centers “for young people to get on the right track.”
“That’s what I’ve already done and will continue to do as mayor,” said Welch.
Blackmon also said the focus should be on giving kids opportunities, but criticized Welch for saying that he wants to give kids after-school opportunities when he has had over 20 years in office to achieve this, “and we never saw results.”
“Now he’s telling us he’s going to work on this for his next role, but he’s already had 20 years of opportunity…”
Blackmon added that he has fought to make the Science Center a reality for the duration of his time on the city council, bringing together a “cross-cultural” group of politicians, organization, and the surrounding neighborhoods who are all in favor of bringing the center back to life.
“Kids feel hopeless and helpless, and we need to show them a road map to success,” he said.
Welch asked for time to rebut Blackmon’s remarks, since he was mentioned by name but was told he would have to factor that into the time allotted to answer his next question.
“Now back to Mr. Blackmon’s latest misstatement,” began Welch after waiting for his next opportunity to speak. “Maybe you just weren’t around or weren’t involved, and so you’re not aware of what we’ve done …”
Welch then stated that he led the effort to create the South St. Pete Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), the first CRA in the county. He said the CRA can bring in over $100 million to use for education and youth services, and upgrading centers in the community.
“Not miles away at a facility that’s your pet project,” said Welch. “And you admit that you don’t even have a transportation plan to get the kids out there.
“So, there’s just a couple of things we’ve done in the community, and I’m sorry you missed that over the 20 years, but it was done in partnership with many council members.”
The general election Nov. 2, and a new mayor will be sworn in on Jan. 6, 2022.