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Five things to watch for in tonight’s City Council debate

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

St. Pete is hosting a City Council candidate forum tonight including all five candidates. The debate begins at 7 p.m. and is scheduled to last an hour. It will be at City Hall at 175 Fifth Street North.

The debate will also be televised on Bright House Network’s channel 641, channel 15 on WoW  and 20 on Verion FiOs. The debate will also be streamed live on StPeteTV and then rebroadcast periodically on that same site.

Going into the debate, here are five things to watch for.

Lisa Wheeler-Brown vs. Will Newton

These two candidates are considered the frontrunners in the Distict 7 primary and are likely to make points to highlight each campaign as opposed to the other and highlight key differences.

The biggest difference the two have is about the proposed deal to allow the Tampa Bay Rays to look for stadium sites outside St. Pete. Wheeler-Brown supports the deal while Newton opposes it.

The difference has affected endorsements for the candidates. Wheeler-Brown nabbed endorsements from the Tampa Bay Times and The Tampa Tribune. Both have encouraged passage of the mayor’s memorandum of understanding. Meanwhile, Steve Kornell, who has been a vocal opponent of the MOU, has endorsed Newton.

Sheila-Scott Griffin vs. Newton and Wheeler-Brown

Scott-Griffin is fighting for her place in the top two in order to move on to the November general election. The race is nonpartisan, but Scott-Griffin is the only Republican in the pack. While Newton and Wheeler-Brown are expected to split the Democratic majority of District 7 voters, Scott-Griffin can reasonably expect to get the conservative vote.

Her remarks are likely to be directed at trying to squeeze whatever votes she can from the two frontrunners. Expect Scott-Griffin to continue with her passionate pleas to voters and preacher-like dialogue.

Also watch for her careful maneuvering around topics to avoid sounding conservative. During a previous candidate forum she danced around the issue of raising the minimum wage, leaving it ambiguous as to whether she supported such a move, but yet continuing to imply she did.

The Pier

With news surfacing of the Pier’s demolition this week, the debate over the city’s process to date and continued progress has been thrust back into the limelight. It’s likely candidates will face questions regarding their thoughts on Pier Park. It’s also possible they may be asked to address the potential petition lingering in the background by Voteonthepier.

Southside CRA

The newly created Southside Community Redevelopment Area could be a huge source of progress for the struggling Midtown and Childs Park communities. Candidates will likely be asked about how to use those funds.

Expect Sheila Scott-Griffin to lament CRAs of the past that have proven moot. Will Newton will likely point out there is only about $500,000 to work with so far? Wheeler-Brown has said she wants to use that money to immediately start building job training programs and getting more people in the community off the streets and into jobs. Aaron Sharpe will focus on his campaign highlight of providing “opportunity.”

The fifth candidate, Lewis Stephens, will likely focus on education as a way to best use CRA funds.

Relationship with police

In this category, Wheeler-Brown wins. She’s had a long history of bringing law enforcement and the community together and advocating for better relationships. When her son was murdered in 2008, Wheeler-Brown was successful in breaking down the area’s no-snitch code of silence to bring his killer to justice.

However, despite her continued efforts, there are still harsh feelings in District 7 toward law enforcement. Many residents feel targeted and are reluctant to see police as protectors rather than a threat.

Wheeler-Brown will talk up this part of her campaign when asked, but other candidates have a key opportunity to bring new, fresh ideas onto the debate stage.

Candidates have all said they support Police Chief Anthony Holloway’s Park, Walk, Talk program.

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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