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St. Pete insiders weigh-in: Lisa Wheeler-Brown will come out on top

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The latest poll shows Lisa Wheeler-Brown with an 11-point lead over her District 7 opponent, Will Newton. Those numbers from Sunday night’s St. Pete Polls survey are indicative of what some of the city’s most engaged voters are thinking.

Of the 14 super-voters who responded to a question about who they thought would win the Election Tuesday, only two said Newton – and both of those are voters who opposed Pier Park and have been critical of Mayor Rick Kriseman.

“Newton has experience with the City negotiating so he is used to the process. [He] won’t have that learning curve and can hit the ground running. He will not “Rubber stamp” Mayor Kriseman’s Tallahassee-esque agenda and will not tolerate the Mayor’s political operatives belittling Council,” said supporter Robert Neff. “Lisa Wheeler-Browns seems to have too many lapses in campaign finances and her judgment. She also appears to be willing to endorse anything Mayor Kriseman puts forth.”

John Rose, another Kriseman critic, gave Newton the edge because Wheeler-Brown “seems to have a dark cloud following her around.”

Rose wrote, he “just couldn’t trust her.”

But the rest of the answers told a different story – one of frustrated voters tired of watching a campaign chock full of mud-slinging.

Eight voters indicated they thought Wheeler-Brown would come out on top Tuesday with four others not sure who would win. However, almost every single one of those who hypothesize a Wheeler-Brown win or who say the race is too close to call said they were turned off by negative campaigning – particularly from the Newton campaign.

“What I saw from the Newton campaign seemed like malicious attacks and the refusal to apologize for baseless negative assertions of her profiting from her sons death really gave me the impression that Will lacks the honor and character necessary to be in position of public trust,” said community activist Chuck Terzian.

He’s referencing the final blow to the Wheeler-Brown campaign in which a foundation Wheeler-Brown established in her slain son’s name came under fire for lacking required documentation. Initial evidence pointed to an online estimation that the foundation had brought in $81,000, but the website used arbitrary information to collect that data. The campaign instead claims the foundation raised only $300 and did not move forward for lack of funding.

Wheeler-Brown supporters saw this as a low blow to Wheeler-Brown’s character and she ended up appearing sympathetic during a final debate in which she emotionally blasted Newton for accusing her of profiting from her son’s death.

Comments from those in the community who often spread the word about candidates to less-involved friends and family show an overall disgust with negative campaigning.

“I am really disgusted by the negative attack ads. This is the reason people get turned off from politics,” said Amos Miers. “Either of them are good for our community, and neither needed to go negative.”

The latest poll results could also support the hypothesis that foundation allegations doomed Newton’s campaign.

“We underestimated [Lisa Wheeler-Brown’s] support in the Primary, and in the two polls that we’ve done for the General she has been ahead. So, that would tell me that [Lisa Wheeler-Brown] is more likely to win than not,” said St. Pete Polls head Matt Florell. “Although, Newton also has shown more momentum from the first poll to the second, and the margin between them was within the margin of error.”

Florell said that before the results of Sunday’s poll were in. He was looking specifically to see whether or not Newton’s momentum continued, which it did not. This poll was taken after the foundation allegations. The previous poll was taken before.

The foundation accusations may have even overshadowed more obviously legitimate concerns about Wheeler-Brown’s campaign finance history. Her campaign records early on were sloppy. There were numerous items misreported in addition to a campaign expenditure for dental work that went unreported for several months. There were also several in-kind contributions not initially reported.

But her supporters aren’t worried about those.

“I support Lisa and I see her issues as missteps,” Terzian said.

And City Council member Karl Nurse who has supported Wheeler-Brown from the beginning has stuck by her side despite controversy.

“I think that Lisa has a slight edge. Most of her fundraising was local which helps. Will’s gutter level attacks finally went beyond the possible when his campaign alleged that Lisa profited from her son’s murder,” Nurse wrote in an email.

Nurse has not only offered his endorsement he’s also offered his checkbook. Nurse donated $1,000 to Wheeler-Brown’s campaign in both the Primary and General elections. He did the same through his company, Baytech Label.

And City Council member Darden Rice has stuck by her side as well. Supporters seem to see her as a breath of fresh air – a candidate who represents progressive ideals and is a more sincere voice for the people.

It also can’t hurt Wheeler-Brown that Mayor Kriseman came out one day before the election with his endorsement. That should come as no surprise to those following along based on the Rays issue.

“Even though her finance issues are concerning, I feel that she’s more of a real person that is truly in touch with the people of her community,” said progressive activist Tyler Mitchell.

A comment thread on Facebook asking who would win the matchup revealed concerns from left-leaning Democrats that Newton has too much conservative backing.

He has endorsements from Republicans Ed Montanari, Rick Baker, Kathleen Peters and others. The Stonewall Democrats called on Newton to renounce those endorsements, but his campaign has instead tried to paint them as evidence that Newton is able to be a bi-partisan candidate who builds consensus.

“If Team Wheeler-Brown truly turns out the voters she wins,” said education activist Jim Jackson. “If not it will be Will. The campaign teams are winning or losing and not the candidates.”

Voters and candidates will find out if Wheeler-Brown’s status as heir-apparent for the District 7 seat holds up Tuesday night. Polls close at 7. Because more than half of voters have likely already cast a ballot, it’s expected that results will roll in quickly.

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 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

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