City Council candidates were out in full force Tuesday morning in a final push to earn votes before polls close at 7 p.m. City Council member Steve Kornell, who faces re-election, and District 7 candidates Will Newton and Lisa Wheeler-Brown all lingered jovially at Pinellas Community Church where voters in three South St. Pete precincts cast their ballots.
All eyes are on Wheeler-Brown and Newton as voters wait for results to roll in Tuesday night. The District 7 race is the closest and has been dubbed by many engaged voters this cycle as the bloodiest City Council contest in recent memory.
But the candidates were focusing on the positive as they greeted voters and handed out campaign literature.
“I feel good. I feel great,” Wheeler-Brown said with a smile on her face and a coffee in her hand. “I’m looking forward to tonight.”
Then she took to grabbing votes one at a time posing for pictures, asking questions and shaking hands.
Newton showed up just moments later and was immediately greeted by his opponent. The two hugged and even shared a couple of inside jokes this reporter promised not to quote.
Voters would never know that the past several weeks have been an onslaught of negative mailers from third parties.
One anti-Newton mailer showed a picture of Newton edited into a Hawaiian shirt with a crown of flowers and squeezed into a life preserver. The mailer plays on allegations that Newton abused the St. Pete Fire Department’s “shift swap” program while he was a firefighter there to take personal time off.
While then Fire Chief Jim Large speculated he thought that may the case, the claims were never substantiated.
Another anti-Newton mailer depicts Newton and his brother, incumbent Wengay Newton as bobblehead dolls and accuses the two of being obstructionists.
But the most recent mailer voters are crying foul over is one showing an unflattering photo of Wheeler-Brown playing on her past criminal record including retail theft and writing bad checks. The photo appears to have been edited to make Wheeler-Brown’s skin look darker. That mailer led to Mayor Rick Kriseman offering his last minute endorsement fueled by sheer outrage.
Asked about the mailers Newton said he condemned all of the third-party negative mailings.
“Is it OK to send out [mailers showing me and my brother as] bobblehead dolls with complete fallacies,” Newton asked.
That particular mailer tied Newton to issues that had nothing to do with him, but were instead his brother’s doing.
Newton was criticized in the Tampa Bay Times, whose editorial board endorsed Wheeler-Brown, for not condemning the darkening of his opponent’s skin on the third-party mailer.
“It was the day before the election,” Newton said. “We didn’t have time to respond. We’re very busy.”
Instead he called on campaign finance reform to add more transparency for voters to know who is paying for those mailers.
“We won’t know who donated to those committees until after the election is over,” Newton said.
Newton goes into Election Day trailing Wheeler-Brown by 11 points in the most recent poll taken Sunday night, but he’s not worried.
“The polls are a reflection of the people you’re polling,” he said.
But there’s speculation among some of the city’s most active voters that the negative campaigning may actually be hurting Newton. Aside from the third-party mailer that allegedly darkened Wheeler-Brown’s skin, there were also anonymous accusations that Wheeler-Brown had profited from her murdered son’s death.
An anonymous tipster pointed out that there was no paperwork tied to a foundation created in her son’s name following his 2008 murder. Initial reports found a website listing the foundation’s estimated revenue at more than $80,000. But that estimate was proven to be completely arbitrary. Wheeler-Brown claims the foundation never gained traction and only brought in about $300 – money that was donated. That’s why paperwork was never filed.
Newton claims the campaign had nothing to do with the third-party mailers and called reports of the fliers being tied to the campaign “juicy reporting.”
Though voter turnout at Pinellas Community Church was just a trickle, the few voters who answered questions after casting their ballots seemed nonplussed or unaware of the controversy.
Ernie Coney, who voted for Newton, called the negativity “typical political posturing.” And Brad Hines, who didn’t want to say who he voted for, admitted it was “the most aggressive campaign,” but said only that it lead to “a lot of publicity.”
He said his number one priority in voting this year was the Tampa Bay Rays stadium saga – the single most divisive issue separating Wheeler-Brown and Newton. Wheeler-Brown is in favor of reaching a deal similar to the one brokered by Mayor Kriseman. Newton has said he wants a better deal for the city.
That issue has been a thorn in the side of District 5 incumbent Steve Kornell. His “no” vote on the deal landed him in hot water with the Tampa Bay Times when they offered their coveted endorsement to Kornell’s longs shot opponent, Philip Garrett.
“I’m cautiously optimistic. We’re working hard right up until 6:59,” Kornell said of his feelings this Election Day. “I think that’s the only way to run a campaign.”
Kornell leads Garrett in the most recent poll by 21 points.
City Council chair Charlie Gerdes also faces re-election against homeless advocate Monica Abbott. Four ballot questions are also included in this year’s municipal election.