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Top St. Pete headlines in 2015: No. 1 – Lisa Wheeler-Brown

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As 2015 winds down we took a look back at the year’s news in St. Pete and came up with a list of the top 10 most newsworthy happenings. Whether the news evoked outrage in a community, excitement or even heartbreak, these are the top headlines of 2015.

No. 1 – Lisa Wheeler-Brown

Lisa Wheeler-Brown will replace Wengay Newton on St. Pete City Council in January and it’s a big deal. For a lot of reasons, Wheeler-Brown’s campaign and subsequent election has been the biggest news in St. Pete this year.

First of all, the campaign was considered one of the bloodiest in St. Pete’s history. City Council elections tend to be void of the negative campaigning voters see in higher profile elections. That was not the case for Wheeler-Brown.

The city councilmember-elect jumped into the race early. By the time qualifying ended, there were five candidates in all with Wheeler-Brown widely seen as the front runner. Her toughest competition turned out to be Will Newton, brother of the incumbent. She also faced credible threat from Republican Sheila Scott-Griffin.

The nastiness emerged when a negative campaign mailer came out highlighting several Florida Bar suspensions against Scott-Griffin when she was an attorney. It also accused the candidate of collecting money from a client while failing to perform even the bare minimum duties.

The mailer prompted the Newton campaign to accuse the Wheeler-Brown campaign of involvement with the mailer although an outside party foot the bill. It was downhill from there.

Wheeler-Brown already had disclosed a checkered past, acknowledging charges of retail theft and writing bad checks when younger. She told the Tampa Bay Times early in her campaign that she had learned from those mistakes. The issue faded until  Wheeler-Brown and Newton emerged in the primary as the top two vote-getters.

Newton supporters took to Facebook and other social media to question Wheeler-Brown’s past.

Then speculation arose about a foundation she created after her son’s murder. Newton supporters questioned the foundation’s spending because there was no paper trail.

Wheeler-Brown’s supporters accused Newton and allies of implying Wheeler-Brown had profited from her son’s murder.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the Newton campaign came from a late third-party mailer with an unflattering photo of Wheeler-Brown, an African-American woman, that was visibly darkened to make her skin appear darker.

Wheeler-Brown handily defeated Newton in November. Many political insiders suspect the negative campaigning may have weighed in her favor.

She won despite questionable campaign finance moves including a $500 expenditure for personal dental work, failure to report in-kind contributions and a slew of misreported items.

The unprecedented dirty campaigning wasn’t the only effect the election had on St. Petersburg. Wheeler-Brown’s election likely ensures a nearly decade-old issue is put to bed.

The city has been grappling with the Tampa Bay Rays’ problem of chronically low attendance ratings since about 2007. The team back then wanted to build a new stadium on the downtown waterfront. When that measure failed in 2008, the team made noises about moving outside of St. Pete.

However, the team’s ironclad use agreement with the city to play ball at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season prohibited them from looking. Mayor Rick Kriseman finally reached a deal with the team in late 2014, but City Council blocked it. So too were subsequent proposals.

Wheeler-Brown replaces a Rays’ stadium holdout. Her presence on council means Kriseman will likely have enough support to draft a new deal and move it forward.

Kriseman, not surprisingly, voted for Wheeler-Brown. Though he never said it was because of the Rays, it was no secret her opponent would not have been as friendly to  his proposals.

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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