In St. Petersburg mayor’s race, an unexpected name comes up: Trump

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The non-partisan race for mayor of St. Petersburg is veering into party politics this week, with two of the leading candidates, both Democrats, accusing each other of benefiting from the support of Republicans.

In a flier mailed to voters, an organization affiliated with St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice’s mayoral campaign suggests that her opponent Ken Welch, the former Pinellas County commissioner, has ties to former President Donald Trump.

Friends of Darden Rice, an organization headed by Rice’s campaign manager, criticizes Welch in the mailer for endorsements he has received from “Trump supporters” and “major Trump allies.” Two versions of the mailer each feature an image of Welch placed next to one of Trump.

The mailer also accuses Welch of abusing his power as commissioner for personal gain, referencing criticism he drew in 2018 for lobbying public officials in support of a nonprofit that had promised to hire his wife.

Welch called the mailer a “false attack,” and a statement by his campaign spokesperson Ashley Bauman noted that Welch had been a delegate for Democrat Joe Biden last year. Welch said he’d been falsely attacked before, when a fellow Pinellas commissioner questioned a Black Lives Matter mural he’d used as his Zoom background.

“Some people will do or say anything to win an election. I will not,” Welch said in the statement.

The mailer says Welch has been endorsed by “Trump supporters who opposed body cameras for police officers and criminal justice reform” and “Republicans and major Trump allies who attacked our constitutional rights.” It says he has received “thousands in contributions from Trump donors.”

In a Monday news conference, Welch called the criticism of donations hypocritical. His campaign manager, Stephanie Owens, said in a statement that Rice had raised over $150,000 “from Republicans and developers, between her campaign account and her political committee.”

The mailer does not make clear which people who endorsed Welch voted for Trump, opposed body cameras or opposed criminal justice reform.

Rice noted in a statement that Welch was endorsed by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who voted for Trump in 2016 and has appeared with him. Gualtieri also stood behind Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at the signing of House Bill 1 in April. The “anti-rioting” legislation has been criticized by Democrats, who say it violates Floridians’ First Amendment rights and will have a chilling effect on peaceful protesting.

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, a Republican who endorsed Welch, expressed doubts about body cameras last year but later spoke in support of a body-camera program for Clearwater police. Gualtieri once opposed body cameras as well, but said last year he had become more open to them, and Pinellas commissioners in January approved funding for all county sheriff’s deputies to wear them.

Owens, the Welch campaign manager, said in her statement that Welch had supported funding for the Pinellas body camera program when he was on the Board of County Commissioners.

In her statement, Rice criticized Welch for appeals he made to other public officials in 2018, asking them to hire a nonprofit group to run a taxpayer-funded literacy program. His wife had been fired from another nonprofit that ran the program; she had previously been exonerated of wrongdoing after she and two other leaders received $16,000 in unauthorized vacation pay.

Welch said at the time that he wanted to keep the reading program in churches and defend his wife, not help his wife get a job.

Owens in her statement called the accusation that Welch had abused his power “blatantly false.” She said Welch was standing up for his wife against “partisan bullies” and he was not in a position to make decisions about her employment.

The statement from the Rice camp, provided by Rice campaign manager Meagan Salisbury, did not provide details on the other claims in the mailer.

Staff writer Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.

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