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Waveney Ann Moore: The election of a Black mayor is a victory for the entire city

Waveney Ann Moore

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St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch. Photo: kenwelch.com.

You surprised me, St. Pete. You actually did it. You elected an African-American mayor. The city’s first.

Polls notwithstanding, I doubted it would happen. St. Petersburg, with its showcase downtown, acclaimed arts, burgeoning development and majority white population, wouldn’t elect a Black leader – or so I thought.

But St. Pete voters – those who took the time to cast a ballot – chose Ken Welch, a former Pinellas County Commissioner.

Conventional wisdom has it that no one can become mayor in St. Petersburg without strong Black support – hence the trek of politicians to Black churches at election time. But that often-expounded theory generally applies to white mayoral candidates. What’s the situation with Black candidates and support from the white community, I wondered?

How would Welch, though well-known, accomplished and with years of political experience, fare among white voters who had a choice of a young, well-connected white candidate who was deploying zillions of campaign signs throughout the city and flooding TV with his ever so earnest ads?

Welch tapped into his deep roots in the city. His late father, David Welch, served on the City Council, becoming only the second African American to do so. He followed civil rights activist and lawyer C. Bette Wimbish, who was elected in 1969. White voters helped Mrs. Wimbish win then and the elder Welch in 1981.

His son’s mayoral victory decades later, with 60 percent of the vote, was propelled by a diverse coalition of supporters from across this majority white city. It was a point the Mayor-elect emphasized in his victory speech to the diverse crowd gathered on the grounds of the Woodson African American Museum: “This is what St. Pete looks like,” he said. “This is what unity looks like. This is what progress looks like.”

He would address disparities, focusing on equity, inclusion, diversity and community benefit, he promised. The work ahead will be challenging, but not insurmountable. And he would be mayor for all.

But, let’s face it, the Black community has high expectations, especially of someone who grew up in St. Petersburg and whose life has surely been affected by the disparities he saw around him.

Welch will succeed Mayor Rick Kriseman, who made it a mission to bolster a Black community that manages to eke out successes despite the yoke of systemic racism. To be fair, though there will be disagreement on this, the city’s previous strong mayors, David Fischer, Rick Baker and Bill Foster, also tried – with different degrees of commitment and success – to tackle inequity in Black neighborhoods.

Welch, who has said he’s approaching his new responsibilities with a “clear-eyed view,” will face added pressure as a Black mayor. There are hopes in the Black community for increased jobs, a permanent, full-service grocery store in Tangerine Plaza, affordable housing, preservation of the community’s history, attention to encroaching gentrification, redressing wrongs brought about by the construction of Tropicana Field, and more. He will have to combat gun violence and homicides and offer additional support to the formal and informal groups struggling to address underlying causes.

He should confront the Central Avenue demarcation, the line that divides the city into north and south – that’s generally whites to the north and Blacks to the south, for newbies. Those who live south of Central bristle at the ugly stereotypes of everyone and everything south of Central. To understand, one just has to read the comments on the St. Petersburg Police Department’s Facebook page when a crime occurs in “South St. Pete.”

Those of us who live on this side of town will press for our parks to be well kept. No more dumping of mattresses, discarded cabinets from construction projects and even vacuum cleaners at, or around, the dumpster near the docks at scenic Bay Vista Park. We’ll want empty shopping centers to become more than convenient sites for noisy nightclubs or boxing matches.

No pressure, Mr. Mayor-elect.

While he was elected with a large majority in this strongly Democratic, 70 percent white city, Welch must already be aware that acceptance of change to address longstanding inequities will go only so far. Significantly, voters rejected two charter amendments Tuesday that aimed to establish an equity framework and chief equity officer with related funding.

But in good news for diversity, Welch will begin his new position with an established African-American Police Chief and a City Council that will have a record three Black council members and its first Hispanic council member.

As a Black mayor, he joins peers such as Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., Lori Lightfoot in Chicago and newly elected Eric Adams of New York, the city’s second Black leader.

City Mayors Foundation, an international research think tank, reports that America’s first elected Black mayors were believed to have been Pierre Caliste Landry of Donaldsonville, Louisiana, and Stephen Swails of Kingstree, South Carolina. They were both elected in 1868, but according to the foundation, it would be another 100 years before an African American would be elected mayor of a large U.S. city.

Welch has acknowledged his historic win, but said his victory “must be followed by a purposeful agenda of opportunity, accountability and intentional equity” for the entire community.

Congratulations, St. Pete, but be vigilant in your jubilation. Somewhere, a group is plotting their next move, perhaps making a pledge similar to that of a certain U.S. Senator who vowed to make President Obama a one-term president.

 

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Avatar

    H. Roy Adams

    November 5, 2021at3:31 pm

    Well said!

  2. Avatar

    Donna S

    November 5, 2021at3:46 pm

    I believe Ken will make a positive difference in bridging the divide!

  3. Avatar

    Danny E White

    November 5, 2021at4:49 pm

    Mayor Elect Welch must appeal to the Black community to not only ask for help in bridging gaps, but to convince the population at large to become actively involved in the pursuit of the desired changes. Wanting change yet opting to complain without personal action or just standing on the sidelines expecting change to drop out of the sky are counterproductive measures.

  4. Avatar

    Brad Banks

    November 5, 2021at5:09 pm

    Did you really just blame the excessive dumping of mattresses and household furnishings and trash on construction people? With that attitude nothing will ever change. People who treat their neighborhood like this, where I’ve lived for 10 years by the way and I voted for Ken Welch , are not going to change their ways just because you put a shiny new shopping center in or a nice clean park! I hope Mr. Welch can see something besides throwing money at the problem is needed…🤞

  5. Avatar

    Laura McGrath

    November 5, 2021at5:36 pm

    It seems to me we elected Ken Welch for three primary reasons – at least, these are the main reasons I voted for him: 1) shared values, 2) proven capability, and 3) a vision for St. Pete tempered with pragmatism. I hope/trust we will get behind him and help him to succeed.

  6. Avatar

    David B

    November 5, 2021at6:23 pm

    I wish Mayor Elect Welch all the best. Speaking as a middle-aged white guy who voted for him, I am confident that he will lead St. Petersburg in a continued positive direction. One of the many reasons I voted for him is because I hoped he would be effective in addressing longstanding inequities in our city.

    Thank you for your column!

  7. Avatar

    Ibis

    November 6, 2021at2:16 pm

    I voted for him and I wish him the best however the fact that he is thinking about caving into the rays and using our taxpayer money to build another stadium is not what I vote for

  8. Avatar

    Margarete Tober

    November 6, 2021at3:46 pm

    Brad Banks,no she didn’t. Read it again.

  9. Avatar

    Brad Banks

    November 6, 2021at11:38 pm

    Margarete , 13th paragraph , 2nd sentence “… dumping of mattresses , discarded cabinets from construction projects…”.

    Yes , she did.

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