This appears to be an unprecedented trifecta, the result of exquisite timing, experienced leadership and expanded opportunities created by voters for minority leadership. African-American officials in 2018 will chair the three most prominent government boards in Pinellas County, a significant milestone. Ken Welch will chair the County Commission, Rene Flowers will chair the School Board and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman will chair the St. Petersburg City Council. Coming off a year when race has re-emerged as a divisive force in national politics, this speaks well of what makes Pinellas County stand apart.
Welch, 53, was first elected to the County Commission in 2000 and was the second African-American ever elected to the board. The St. Petersburg Democrat has consistently fought for impoverished communities, advocated for transit and been a strong voice in the ongoing Rays stadium debate. He has served ably before as commission chairman, elevating board discussions above the minutiae and encouraging collaboration.
Flowers, 53, is a former St. Petersburg council member who won election to the School Board in 2012. She brought her experience with local social service agencies and the NAACP to the School Board.
Wheeler-Bowman, 49, grew up in St. Petersburg and spent years as a community activist, including campaigning to solve her son’s 2008 murder. She was president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations before being elected to the City Council in 2015.
All three elected leaders are natives of Pinellas County and live not far from one another in St. Petersburg. They recently met for breakfast to talk about how they could collaborate in their new roles. As Wheeler-Bowman said, their titles are new but their working together is not. And they are well aware of their place in history.
Welch, Flowers and Wheeler-Bowman did not ascend to leadership positions because of their race. They earned them by first winning the trust of voters and then of their colleagues. Still, having three African-Americans at the helm of the county, city and school boards at the same time is an important mark of progress in Pinellas and an opportunity to celebrate the value of diversity in local governments that represent everyone.