Mayoral candidates Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon did not pull any punches at Tuesday night’s debate, verbally sparring over their political track records, endorsements and funding sources, and affordable housing.
The Tampa Bay Times and Spectrum Bay News 9 jointly hosted the debate, broadcast live on the news channel and a Times political website. Times political editor Steven Contorno and Bay News 9 anchor Holly Gregory handled moderating duties and mostly let the candidates trade barbs uninterrupted. Held exactly two weeks before the Nov. 2 general election, the rapid-fire format allowed for a constant back and forth between the opponents that did not ease up during the hour-long debate.
The first topic was public safety, and it did not take long for the face-to-face candidates to set the tone for the evening.
When asked what he would do to curb gun violence in a city that has seen 28 homicides this year, Blackmon said in the long term the focus should be on providing more economic opportunity, and in the short term, St. Petersburg needs more policing. “Because, if you’ve taken that decision and that choice to take a life, it’s too late for you,” said Blackmon.
Moving forward, Blackmon would like to see more options for economic opportunity and youth programs, such as the Science Center he has been fighting to revitalize. “We need more options because someone who’s not desperate does not commit a murder,” he said.
Welch once again touted the private summit he hosted over the summer with young people, local leaders and educators to talk about what is happening in the community. “We heard directly from young people,” said Welch. “And this is why experience matters.”
Welch then took the opportunity to criticize Blackmon’s plans for the Science Center, saying it was miles away from the problem. “This is the same old, ‘we’re going to build something to solve a problem in the urban community,’ but it’s outside the urban community,” said Welch.
Blackmon replied that he considers the community to be inclusive of west St. Pete and said the premise that the Science Center is not part of the community is flawed. He added that he thinks it is great that Welch is trying to move forward now, “after 20 years of kicking the can down the road.”
“He has experience – experience getting nothing done,” said Blackmon. “Where are the programs that he’s created?”
Welch then said Blackmon has his own set of facts, a phrase he would repeat throughout the debate. Welch pointed out that Blackmon says there was a renaissance under Mayor Rick Baker, while Welch served under Baker and supported many of his initiatives.
Staying on the topic of public safety, the candidates were asked if they were satisfied with oversight and accountability in the St. Pete Police Department.
Welch said he enjoys a great relationship with Police Chief Anthony Holloway, and received an endorsement from Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. He added that he has always supported funding law enforcement. However, Welch believes police are not the answer to every problem.
“There are ways we can work with law enforcement to take the burden off of them and still have a safer community,” said Welch. “I’ve been doing that for over a decade.”
Blackmon called the SPPD the best police force in the nation and is proud of the diversity throughout the ranks – from female officers to a Black police chief. Blackmon countered by saying Welch is again talking about endorsements “from 15 or 16 years ago, and none of this has to do with the St. Pete of today.”
Blackmon then said he would look back to last year when Mayor Kriseman – who has enthusiastically endorsed Welch – “made” Chief Holloway take a knee with protestors.
“To make an African American man take a knee against his will was wrong,” said Blackmon. “That’s why I’m fighting for a more inclusive city. When our police force is doing the best job they can under adverse circumstances, we need to represent them and applaud their work. Not make them bow down when they’ve done nothing wrong.”
Welch called the remark condescending and said Holloway is a man who would not have taken a knee if he did not want to.
“Facts are stubborn things, Robert,” said Welch. “The endorsement from Sheriff Gualtieri was this year, not 16 years ago.”
Gregory told the candidates that a third of all evictions in St. Pete have occurred in the city’s historically Black communities. She then relayed a quote by the founder of the St. Pete Tenants Union, stating that that city leaders created a playground for the rich while telling the working class to move to places like Pasco County for more affordable housing.
Blackmon said he is working to solve those problems right now as a city councilman, but city officials have not been “nimble” in addressing the affordable housing issue. Blackmon added he has pushed to implement a city-backed mortgage program, but it has fallen on deaf ears with the current administration. He said the program would save taxpayers money because “every dollar that enters the affordable housing program would never leave the affordable housing program.”
Blackmon added that he has been pushing to waive affordable housing fees at the state level, “which will make a difference on the ground.”
“I’ve been fighting my entire council career for affordable housing, and also from the private sector,” he said. “We need somebody who’s working towards these ideas.”
Welch said that Blackmon “is not right” and has previously joked about evicting tenants. He also said Blackmon just received $10,000 from a company actively evicting people in the city. Welch touted his part in creating a continuum of housing, from emergency shelters for those evicted to low-income and workforce housing.
“You’ve got to have a passion for doing the right thing,” said Welch. “The key is to not have folks evicted in the first place.”
Blackmon responded that the hypocrisy shown by his opponent was “unbelievable.” He said that Welch scheduled a fundraiser at a site where tenants are actively being evicted in downtown St. Pete. Blackmon said the Tenants Union does good work, but he was dismayed to find out that the head of the union is paid by Welch’s campaign.
“They’re being bankrolled by him, and you need to look at who’s got more developer dollars,” said Blackmon. “He’s certainly got more money out of Miami and out of state than I have.”
The St. Pete general election, held Nov. 2, is 13 days away. Residents who do not wish to vote in person have until 5 p.m. Saturday to request a mail ballot here.