ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) — City councilman Robert Blackmon and former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch have different visions for how St. Petersburg should be run, and those differences were on full display Monday night in a debate that at times got heated.
The Tamba Bay Chamber of Commerce hosted the debate in partnership with WFLA News Channel 8. The debate was livestreamed on WFLA NOW.
The Chamber’s Key Issue Initiatives provided the outline for the debate, beginning with its most recognized priority: business and economic development. Perhaps no issue is more timely and important to this race than whether the city can keep the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg.
“I still wanna focus on St. Petersburg,” Blackmon said. “That being said, I need to look at the harsh realities that are constantly evolving. I’m losing hopes on that. I’m seeing that [Tampa Mayor] Jane Castor’s putting out a plan that they want them in Tampa. I’m seeing that they announced the Ybor City stadium site. And then I’m seeing that my opponent says all the time that baseball is secondary, but has gotten a $50,000 donation from the Rays just last week.”
“I absolutely think we can keep the Rays in St. Petersburg; secondary, if we can’t keep them, Tampa Bay is the next option,” said Welch. “But look, I have said it’s secondary. I’m a child of the Gas Plant [District]. The original promise was jobs and equitable economic development. That’s my priority. But I absolutely believe that the Rays can be a part of that, either at the Trop site or at Al Lang field.”
The debate got heated when both candidates responded to questions about their past comments from at least a decade ago.
In 2008, Welch supported religious exemptions to a county ordinance protecting LGBTQ people.
“Right after my comments on that, the LGBTQ community started reaching out to me,” Welch said. “And so I listened, I learned. The very next year, I made the motion to add sexual orientation to the countywide human rights ordinance.”
Earlier this summer, several Facebook posts from a decade ago surfaced from Robert Blackmon’s account in which he disparaged women and other groups.
“I’m not gonna at all try and make excuses for past behaviors because wrong is wrong, now or then. And I own that, and I apologize for that.”
The candidates also responded to questions about how the city should address climate change, affordable housing, workforce development and transportation.
There is no early voting in the St. Petersburg municipal elections according to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections, but you can still request a mail ballot up until Oct. 23 at 5 p.m.
Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 2.