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Final City Council candidate forum gets heated

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Three City Council races will be decided next week when voters hit the polls November 3. Candidates in two of those races squared off in the final debate leading up to the election in what turned out to be a boisterous forum hosted by the St. Pete NAACP.

Lisa Wheeler-Brown came out of the gate strong with an impassioned plea to voters to reject the negative attention her opponent, Will Newton, has stirred in the race for the District 7 seat covering two of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“My opponent and some of his supporters have been saying some pretty terrible things about me and my murdered son,” Wheeler-Brown said before pausing to regain her composure. “They’re accusing me of profiting from my murdered son’s murder.

Wheeler-Brown was referring to questions surrounding a foundation Wheeler-Brown created following her son’s murder. Her campaign claims there wasn’t enough money raised to form a 501(c)3 non-profit and instead donated the $300 raised. A website lists the foundation with an estimated revenue of $81,000, but based that estimation on completely arbitrary data.

The issue raised questions about how much the foundation raised and how the money was used. Wheeler-Brown has been unable to prove the figure her campaign provided because paperwork was lost.

It’s just the latest in a long line of back and forth criticism between the two campaigns. When Wheeler-Brown lambasted Newton for making arbitrary accusations to gain political traction, the mostly full auditorium at the Enoch Davis Recreation Center in the heart of District 7 went wild with applause and cheers.

“I know you’re just as disgusted as I am,” Wheeler-Brown said.

Wheeler-Brown brought it up again during closing statements an hour and a half later. Newton told the crowd that he didn’t take any of the negative campaigning personal. Wheeler-Brown disagreed.

“When you talk about my son, I take it personally and take it to heart,” she said. “Whoever you vote for make sure you’re voting your conscious.”

Those two moments could be indicative of overall sentiments in a city where few voters are engaged enough in the campaigns to know too much about a series of scandals rocking the Wheeler-Brown campaign. That includes also a series of campaign finance reporting errors and an ill-advised use of campaign funds for personal dental work.

Yet, when Wheeler-Brown called out Newton’s campaign for going negative, the response to her was overwhelmingly positive. What’s more, during more than thirty minutes of audience questions, not one person brought up those issues, suggesting that may not be a priority for voters.

Aside from the occasional dig on each other, Wheeler-Brown and Newton spent a good bit of the debate laughing, snickering and at one point, even exchanging a high-five.

Not surprising considering the forum, questions revolved largely around issues pertaining to poverty and minorities. Wheeler-Brown and Newton demonstrated what voters have already seen – that aside from a couple of issues, they have similar ideas on how to move the city and their district forward.

Both told voters they want to focus on affordable housing and jobs. Both expressed interest in finding additional funding for the Carter G. Woodson African-American History museum.

That question, however, gave Newton a chance to get an attack in on his opponent. A campaign mailer went out earlier in the campaign comparing Newton to his brother, Wengay Newton, who currently occupies the seat the two candidates are fighting over.

The mailer showed both Newtons as bobble head dolls and listed all the reasons they say “no” to important city priorities. One of those involved saying no to the museum. Newton was quick to point out that he’s never had an opportunity to vote on the issue, but overwhelmingly supports helping the museum thrive and grow. Newton pointed out he’s even donated to the museum using his own funds.

The biggest difference between the two candidates is their stance on the Tampa Bay Rays and their request to look outside the city for new stadium locations. Wheeler-Brown supports letting the team look for the estimated $16 million it would have cost the team under Mayor Rick Kriseman’s initial Memorandum of Understanding rejected by City Council.

Newton has said that deal wasn’t good enough. The issue led to the Tampa Bay Times endorsing Wheeler-Brown and not him.

But for voters in Newton’s District the issue is far more complex than just baseball. Many of those residents were displaced from affordable housing projects that were leveled when Tropicana Field was built nearly three-decades ago. They’re hungry for redemption and want a piece of whatever revenue is generated from the site.

On one hand, Newton wants to see the site included in the Southside Community Redevelopment Area to nab a possible insurgency of funds for the district that could be used for infrastructure or for projects to do things like create jobs and provide youth employment programs – all things the District desperately needs.

But if he is elected to council and blocks a deal from moving forward, it could mean no development on that site for more than a decade if the Rays are forced to play out their lease that runs through 2027.

Wheeler-Brown supports letting the team look so the city can reap development dollars associated with the Tropicana Field site. The Tampa Bay Times estimates that can be as much as $500 million.

While their philosophies on what to do about the Rays may be different, both promised to be committed to ensuring additional funding sources for the Midtown neighborhood.

While the Wheeler-Brown/Newton match-up is the most heated City Council race this election, they still shared the stage with District 5 candidates Philip Garrett and incumbent Steve Kornell. Though Kornell is crushing Garrett in the polls, the performance during Monday night’s debate painted a different picture.

Garrett delivered passionate sermons on city issues often exceeding his allotted time and shouting over anyone who tried to stop him. Several times he received booming rounds of applause for delivering charismatic pleas for change in communities that have suffered through generational poverty for decades.

Though it was clear the audience resonated with Garrett’s frustration over lack of affordable housing and jobs and an inadequate network of public schools in South St. Pete, he still merely just repeated the same talking points over and over.

Those are a commitment to early childhood education for children between the ages of one and five, better city services and lower taxes.

And he opened and closed the evening with the same line he’s used in every debate.

“I’m a God fearing family man,” Garrett shouted in what may be a not-so-subtle reference to his opponents status as an openly gay council member.

Kornell, meanwhile, capitalized on Garrett’s rants by dispelling myths and highlighting his accomplishments during his six years on council.

Garrett consistently accused Kornell of not doing anything to further troubled areas in his district. He referenced a shopping plaza on 62 Avenue South that remains 80 percent vacant.

But Kornell fired back that the Skyway Marina District is booming under his watch. Jabil Circuit announced this year it was expanding operations to the Ceridian building and St. Petersburg College said they would work with the city to provide job training to anyone who needs it.

Kornell also had the primary hand in rehabilitating the long-troubled and crime-laden Mariner’s Point apartments. And he was behind a deal to purchase additional land to protect Boyd Hill Nature Preserve.

Garrett accused Kornell of doing too little to improve education in the city. Kornell snapped back reminding that he is a school social worker and has advocated for a number of city initiatives to improve conditions. He listed his top priority as stamping out childhood homelessness. Garrett delivered an emotional speech about improving schools saying that his opponent was too concerned with less important issues. Kornell poked a giant hole in his argument.

“To do that your parents have to have a good job,” he said. “Those kids have to have a house to sleep in.”

Two other candidates are also facing off at the ballot box next week. District 1 City Council member and chair of the board, Charlie Gerdes, faces community activist Monica Abbott. Neither candidate was present for the debate though the hosting group claims both confirmed they would be there.

In addition to the City Council races, four amendments will also be on the ballot.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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