The numbers don’t lie: With more than 60 percent of the votes, former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch was elected the next mayor of St. Petersburg Tuesday, coming in well ahead of city councilmember Robert Blackmon.
Blackmon, 32, will continue on Council until Jan. 6, when the seat he vacated by entering the mayoral race is filled by Copley Gerdes, who was also elected Tuesday. Welch will be sworn in as mayor on that date.
After that, Blackmon plans to return to his successful business, buying, selling and managing commercial real estate.
And, he says in this exclusive interview, more politics – in the future – is not entirely off the table.
St. Pete Catalyst: What’s been your biggest takeaway from this whole experience?
Robert Blackmon: I’m just thankful for all the support that I got. Even though I came up short, you look at the amount of votes I got for a race I was only in for less than six months, especially at a big fundraising deficit, it’s an honor for me. I’m a guy born and raised in St. Pete, my family’s been here for generations – this is not something I ever even dreamed of, having a shot at the top spot in the city. Especially in a relatively short political career, even having an opportunity at it was an honor and a blessing.
What would you say handicapped you – was it fundraising, was it your youth, was it something else?
There were a couple problems I saw going in, and I kept waiting to see who would be the more moderately voiced candidate who got in. And it never happened. I waited months and months – I told myself this is crazy, there’s got to be somebody else. I couldn’t believe that the options that were there were what was there. By the time I got in, there was a lot of endorsements and support that had already been locked up by Commissioner Welch and Councilmember Rice. But I got in because I thought it was my duty to bring that viewpoint there.
The math was never good for me even getting through the primary. And yes, I was out-fundraised.
But Ken, to his credit, has been in politics since I was in elementary school. He was elected when I was in the 5th grade. And a lot of people are familiar and comfortable with him. I think Ken is a known entity, so people had a level of comfort with him.
With me, I think the people saw somebody who has good ideas, but I think there was more of a … you weren’t sure what you were getting.
It was hard for me to raise money because Ken was kind of anointed early on. He had the institutional endorsements. It was tough. Regardless – dollars per vote, I won, you know? So there’s something to be said about that.
I think late entry, out-resourced, out-fundraised … and I have had some personal challenges this year. I was still reeling from the loss of my treasurer from my council campaign, Joe Rucks, in April. That’s what ultimately convinced me to get in – Joe kept saying ‘get in, I’ll be your treasurer.’ And when he passed away I told myself that if he believed in me, then maybe I should believe in myself.
But it just wasn’t meant to be. And I’m excited to see, hopefully, a lot of really positive growth for our city under Ken’s leadership.
You’re young – it’s not like this has to be the end of your political career.
As far as the whole ‘political career’ thing, I kind of cringe even thinking about that phrase. Because politics is exhausting. Being on the council has been the honor of my life, but at the same time it is a lot of work. I only got involved in the first place because I thought there was a need for a vision, and a need for leadership and differing viewpoints. And I thought I could provide that on Council, I hope that I have. And I thought I could provide it as mayor. I’m not looking for the next job in politics, but certainly whenever there’s an opportunity to help out, this is my hometown, I’m always happy to step in and get involved if I think there’s some good to be done.
Can you talk about your campaign?
People have been talking about how the race was pretty clean, and tame, in comparison to today’s politics. Some people encouraged me to go more negative – they thought I might have an edge – but I thought people were tired of that type of politics. I didn’t want to get involved in it because I thought it was disingenuous. My whole goal was to paint the contrast and the differences between myself and Mayor-elect Welch without going too negative, because frankly I wanted my ideas to have a chance at winning, even if I didn’t.
I’m really hoping, first and foremost, to make sure the Science Center revitalization project is a success. We have the money. I know Ken hasn’t been a huge fan, but I’m hoping that he will allow that project to move forward and will see all the good it’ll do for the community.
All of the projects I talked about, I know they won’t all be accomplished, but I’d certainly like the chance to advocate for them during Mayor Welch’s term. I’m hoping to have a good working relationship with the new administration.
Last question. Are you glad it’s over?
It was really weird playing in these two spheres: Am I going to be the next mayor, or am I going to be a private citizen again? At least there is a trajectory now of where I’m heading. So I can continue to work on Council for the next few months, and look towards getting back into the private sector more in my business career.
Truly – I’m not just saying this – it is so humbling, a 32-year-old guy who’s lived his whole life in St. Pete getting a shot, even a shot, at being the top executive for the city. It’s an absolute honor, and I still can’t believe that I even had the opportunity.
Regardless of whether or not I do anything moving forward in politics, it will always be so special to me that voters even let me get through the primary, and let me share my thoughts and vision of a new St. Petersburg.
Ken is a good man. Even if you voted for me, I hope everyone gives him a shot. I think he will do great things for our city, and I’m confident in his leadership.
Even though we were opponents, I consider him a friend. And I’ll miss spending a couple days a week with him for the last few months!