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Lisa Wheeler-Brown topples Will Newton in contentious St. Pete City Council race

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Lisa Wheeler-Brown is heading to St. Petersburg City Council to represent residents in District 7. In what was expected to be a close race, Wheeler-Brown walked away with a whopping 58 percent of the vote compared with Will Newton’s 42 percent.

That’s 5 points higher than the final poll before the election predicted.

“It feels great that the voters chose me,” Wheeler-Brown said with an ear-to-ear grin.

Prior to speaking with reporters, Wheeler-Brown thanked all of her supporters and endorsers including incumbent City Council members Darden Rice and Karl Nurse.

Wheeler-Brown and Rice shared a brief, but emotional hug during her speech after initial mail ballot counts were released showing she had an insurmountable lead over Newton.

The City Council member-elect celebrated her victory at the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in her district just off of the 22nd Street corridor currently undergoing massive revitalization efforts.

When results began to drop through the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office, her more than 100 supporters went wild with whoops and hollers.

When Wheeler-Brown entered the room she was near to tears as supporters embraced her offering congratulations.

But the mood around Wheeler-Brown’s campaign leading up to the election painted a far different picture than the one at her campaign party where, even before the results rolled in, everyone seemed like family.

Negative campaigning, particularly toward Wheeler-Brown, started in September when SaintPetersblog uncovered a revised campaign treasurer’s report showing Wheeler-Brown had changed a $500 listed expense from “office space” to “photo shoot expense.”

Turns out that expense was for personal dental work, a questionable use of campaign funding that Wheeler-Brown eventually paid back.

It was all downhill from there. More mistakes were found. And then more. Three updates to campaign finance reports were filed in one day alone.

That, however, wasn’t even the worst of it for Wheeler-Brown. The salt in the wound came when an anonymous tipster pointed out that Wheeler-Brown created a foundation in her son’s name after his 2008 murder.

The foundation failed to raise enough money to establish as a legitimate nonprofit, so the $300 Wheeler-Brown said she raised was donated.

No reports were filed, though. Instead, an online database of companies and nonprofits listed revenue at $81,000. The figure was derived through arbitrary metrics and even the website itself admitted it was not necessarily accurate.

Wheeler-Brown took it as a personal attack, contending it was an accusation that she had profited from her son’s death.

SaintPetersblog reported the issue, but it was barely mentioned in other news outlets.

During an interview after the results came in, Wheeler-Brown addressed this reporter directly about the claims.

“I believe in God and I believe in forgiveness; that’s how I was just able to look at you in the face this morning,” Wheeler-Brown said, referring to a run-in just after polls opened at Pinellas Community Church in South St. Pete.

Wheeler-Brown was all smiles during that meeting.

“God would not let my heart harden toward you,” she said. “You are a journalist.”

That’s the kind of attitude she said she plans to carry into City Hall once she’s inaugurated Jan. 2.

Incumbents Steve Kornell and Amy Foster endorsed Newton. So too did Ed Montanari, who also will be sworn into office in January.

“Whether they endorsed me or not I’m looking forward to moving forward,” Wheeler-Brown said.

Asked about her Day-One priority, Wheeler-Brown corrected she didn’t have just one.

She said from the day she started campaigning she’s been focused on public safety, education and affordable housing.

Although Wheeler-Brown and Newton ran on similar issues, the dirty campaigning may have been what gave her the edge.

“The electorate is much smarter than that,” Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers said of the negative campaigning.

Others expressed similar thoughts.

“At the end of the day the negative campaigning came in and it was not a good thing for Will,” supporter Freddie Cuevas said.

However, at his election party at Ferg’s Sports Bar across from Tropicana Field, Newton said there wasn’t anything he’d change about his campaign.

“I wouldn’t, because we ran a very good race. Like I said, I think the difference here was time,” Newton said to SaintPetersblog reporter Devon Crumpacker. “Their campaign started in January, ours started in June, proper. So time is the great equalizer when you run campaigns.”

Wheeler-Brown will be sworn in to office along with fellow winners Ed Montanari and re-elected council members Steve Kornell and Charlie Gerdes.

St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman, who one day before the election endorsed Wheeler-Brown, stopped by her election celebration.

“Congratulations to our returning incumbents, Charlie Gerdes and Steve Kornell, and to our newest members, Ed Montanari and Lisa Wheeler-Brown,” Kriseman said. “I am confident that our incoming City Council will be our best yet and that the sun will continue to shine bright on St. Petersburg.”

Pinellas County Congressional District 13 candidate Charlie Crist also weighed in on the election results.

“Congratulations to Councilmembers Charlie Gerdes and Steve Kornell, and welcome to Councilmember-elect Lisa Wheeler-Brown. I’m thankful for their public service,” Crist said. “St. Petersburg is a great place, but there’s more work to do for fair wages, a healthy environment, education, and good jobs in the Sunshine City.”

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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