ST. PETERSBURG — Public service has become a tradition for the Gerdes family.
Copley Gerdes is just the latest to work on behalf of his fellow citizens as mayor of St. Petersburg. He now represents the District 1 seat on the city council held by his father, Charlie Gerdes, from 2012 to 2020. He took over in January.
Copley’s uncle – and Charlie’s brother – Rob Gerdes is a longtime city worker who was promoted to deputy city manager by Mayor Ken Welch to tackle one of the city’s most pressing issues: affordable housing.
The Gerdes agree: the service mentality of the family took root a generation earlier, with the arrival of Charlie and Rob’s parents in St. Petersburg. They soon became active in their adopted community, from coaching youth sports to volunteering with programs for the poor.
They gave of themselves and encouraged their children to do the same.
“They’ve made it clear that we continue to be close and that’s important to them,” Rob Gerdes said of his parents. “Really, the message was: love God, love others and stay close to your family.”
Friends say they expected Copley to carry the torch.
“It’s who we are,” he said. “I’m super proud to be part of it.”
“In our DNA”
Charlie and Rob’s parents moved to St. Petersburg from Huntsville, Alabama when their father transferred to ECI, now Raytheon. They became heavily involved at St. Jude’s Cathedral. Charlie was 6 years old and Rob was not going to be born for 10 years.
Charlie V. Gerdes, the family patriarch, was a board member and coach of Azalea Little League Baseball. He makes sure his children read the newspaper and keep up to date with the news. His wife Annalize Gerdes will become a lifetime volunteer at Alpha House, which helps pregnant women and homeless teenage girls, and would take her grandchildren, including a 10-year-old Copley, with her. At 86, the family matriarch is still volunteering.
Charlie and Rob’s brother, John Gerdes, is the athletic director of Clearwater Central Catholic High School. Copley’s mother, two of her aunts and her in-laws are teachers. His cousin is a firefighter.
“There’s something in our DNA that I’m really happy to have,” Copley said.
Siblings and cousins all watched each other’s baseball games. Especially Copley and Rob, who are now 38 and 49 respectively. Rob taught Copley how to set up for a double play, shoot a shotgun and tie fishing knots.
Copley was an adult when his father took office, but he said it was fun to see his father’s involvement and passion for public service.
“I’m always in the red to give back what this city gave me,” he said. “My dad is not. My dad is in the dark.
Mayor Welch and Copley have something in common. In addition to being sworn in on the same day, both of their fathers served on the Municipal Council.
David T. Welch was the first black man elected to the council and served three terms on the dais. He was known as Mayor of Black City Hall for its accessibility to black residents. Charlie Gerdes was known as the conscience of the board, especially when he explained why he disagreed on an issue without giving the impression that he disagreed.
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“Their service really cannot be questioned,” Mayor Welch said of the Gerdes family.
Copley goes by his middle name. The eldest of four boys – like his father, the eldest of six – his first name is also Charles. And just like his father, Copley wanted to serve his hometown.
He first envisioned a run for his father’s District 1 seat representing the west side of the city in 2027, when his children would be a bit older. Then former city council member Robert Blackmon, who replaced his father when he left council due to term limits, decided to run for mayor midway through his first term. And Charlie called his son.
Former city policy chief Kevin King, who knows the family well, once called Copley a “future member of city council” in a 2017 podcast. His own father had worked with Charlie Gerdes at ECI and Raytheon. He said Copley is cut from the family fabric.
“To see Copley there is really heartening to see this family’s commitment to service continue,” King said.
As per usual
For Rob Gerdes, it’s the physical connection to his hometown that has inspired his 23-year career.
It’s driving around town and remembering the events of your youth. It’s playing catch with your son on the same court he played as a kid.
Seeking a vocation in his mid-twenties, Rob channeled his affinity for the city. He found a job with the parks and recreation department, organizing Ribfest along the waterfront and events at the Coliseum downtown.
He rose through the ranks as Facilities and Recreation Supervisor and then in planning and economic development. From there, he moved on to zoning and code enforcement, where he began interacting with his brother in the council chamber and in neighborhood affairs.
At first, Rob was looking forward to working with his brother. He did not want to give the slightest trace of nepotism.
“I was afraid at first it would be uncomfortable, but it didn’t turn out that way at all,” he said. “My brother was a very thoughtful and thorough adviser. I expect Copley to be the same. To be honest, it really has become business as usual.
He takes the appearance of perceived nepotism seriously. He didn’t even tell his family that he was in the running for a promotion under Welch. They learned about it from the press.
One of the last calls Copley made before applying for a position was to Rob, whom he calls his big brother. Rob said he saw the civil service brewing in his brother and over time he saw the same in his nephew.
“It may sound strange, but I think we all have some type of physical, spiritual and emotional connection to the city,” Rob said. “That’s what drives our interest in municipal government and our interest in being public servants.”
One size 11
Copley said he warned people that while they shared a first name and love for their community, he and his father had their differences.
For one, his dad wears a size 12½ shoe, and he’s an 11, he jokes.
Charlie is a lawyer. Copley is a financial advisor at Northwestern Mutual, around the corner from City Hall. Charlie is more eloquent where Copley feels more outspoken. They are both Democrats, but Copley says he is more fiscally conservative.
He calls Saint Petersburg a “little big city” and wants it to continue. He wants to make the city walkable and bikeable, like it was when he was growing up, and support the growth of local businesses through city partnerships with local developers.
Copley does, however, use his “cheat code” – what he calls his father’s phone number which he dials when he needs advice.
“I’m going to do my best to make my dad proud and make the city proud, make my family proud, but I’m not my dad,” he said. “And I totally agree with that. I own this.
While name recognition may have played a role in Copley’s election, Charlie thought his legacy might hurt his son. Copley won by just three votes ahead of Bobbie Shay Lee in the August primary.
“There are people who didn’t like what I did on the board. My mind immediately went to the downside of being a Gerdes,” Charlie said. “Look, these are almost entirely Republican neighborhoods. But I worked really hard with those neighborhoods when I was in power… And those neighborhoods were tough on Bobbie.
Copley said he couldn’t disagree more. And he said he hopes his own example will inspire his children to feel connected to their community, like his father did for him.
“If my kids are proud and involved and love where they live like I did when I was 14, it will have been worth it,” Copley said. “Because it means that we have continued on this path of a city for all. A city that leaves no one behind. A city that is bright and beautiful and celebrates awesome things.