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Who will win – Lisa Wheeler-Brown or Will Newton?

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

St. Pete City Council candidates Lisa Wheeler-Brown and Will Newton faced off in a final debate hosted by the local NAACP Monday night in the Midtown neighborhood they hope to represent. At times the dialogue was reminiscent of a campaign that many people believe is one of the nastiest in St. Pete’s history.

Following the debate, SaintPetersblog brought readers a rundown of the key moments, but with just one week left until Election Day, it’s about time the campaign gets broken down into a “what does it all mean” commentary.

On paper it looks like Newton has the edge. He’s raised more money and has kept relatively clear of scandal compared to his opponent whose track record is rife with questionable choices.

Wheeler-Brown has a criminal history. Though, that history includes only minor misdemeanors from her younger years and various civil infractions. I once wrote that attacks on her personal record were inappropriate because most of the transgressions – things like retail theft and writing bad checks – were those most closely related to poverty. To many in her community, the mistakes she has openly owned up to may make her more relatable.

However, some in the city may take more kindly to Newton’s blemish-free rap sheet.

Wheeler-Brown got herself caught up in a series of campaign finance hang-ups after spending campaign cash on personal dental work, failing to report it for several months, not reporting in-kind contributions, as well as a flurry of other minor reporting errors.

Had it stopped there, the damage may have been too much for Wheeler-Brown to overcome. The campaign finance mess-ups were valid concerns related to her viability as a candidate. The campaign chalked them up to mistakes made as a result of inexperience and bad advice. But many voters may not have been able to dismiss the number of questionable choices and careless reporting errors so easily.

But Monday’s debate may have painted a different picture – one that could turn the tide in Wheeler-Brown’s favor.

The latest dig on Wheeler-Brown’s character came as a result of information surfacing about a years’ old foundation she created following her son’s 2008 murder. The Cabretti Wheeler-Fortner Foundation turned up no official documentation and lacked the legally required documentation filed with the Florida Department of Agriculture.

An online database of hypothesized company, corporation and non-profit information listed Wheeler-Brown’s income for that foundation at $81,000. She claims the foundation only raised $300 – not even enough to create an official 501(c)3 – and donated the money to a roadside cleanup program. Nothing, more, her campaign said, ever came of it. They also say documents proving the fundraising and expenses were lost as a result of a bank merger.

While her claims cannot be directly proven, the website estimating the revenue explained that the number was derived from a series of industry estimates. Translation – the number is entirely arbitrary.

Instead of crumbling under pressure, Wheeler-Brown got angry. During the final debate of the campaign, Wheeler-Brown wasted no time in accusing Newton and his campaign for using low-brow, dirty politics to earn some points in the polls.

Her interpretation of the latest blow to her campaign was that Newton was accusing her of profiting from her son’s murder. She publicly shamed him for it in an emotional speech to voters in which she even paused to gain composure.

The delivery was less than a minute, but the reaction from the crowd was palpable.

Because City Council races aren’t followed closely by most of the voting populous it’s hard to say whether that moment will be indicative of Wheeler-Brown’s performance on Election Day. If it is, however, it may be the defining moment in her campaign that set her apart.

It’s easy to pick winning and losing moments in larger campaigns that are widely televised and reported in the media. City Council races are much harder to hypothesize.

The one and only poll conducted during the General Election showed Wheeler-Brown leading only within the margin of error. That means the race was too close to call.

Since then, Newton has had more mail sent to voters in his favor, but an anti-Newton mailer went out that could resonate with St. Pete voters. It correlated Newton to his brother, incumbent Wengay Newton.

While the claims in the mailer were dispelled as a stretch at best, most of the voters who saw them probably don’t know it. Wengay Newton has a good amount of popularity within his District, but voters citywide tend to get irritated with his often bombastic rants from the dais. He comes across ignorant on issues and often appears to have not researched items on the agenda. To be tied to that record could hurt Newton in the polls.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Will Newton’s distancing himself from his brother in earlier mail that explained the two are quite different. Those who have seen both Newton brothers speak surely understand that. But again, many voters may head to their polling places Tuesday having never heard Will Newton’s voice.

The bottom line in this race is, it’s a difficult one to predict. Wheeler-Brown has unwavering support from two powerful City Council members – Darden Rice and Karl Nurse – but Newton has support from half of the board. Wheeler-Brown has the labor unions, but Newton has the police and fire unions.

There’s a funding gap, but it’s not that much. Wheeler-Brown has potential scandal bogging her down, but Newton has the stigma of going negative.

If I had to make a prediction, my guess would be that Wheeler-Brown walks away with the win by a narrow margin – despite controversy. Right or wrong, what sets her apart in a city election not widely followed by the average voter is her charisma.

If she does win, it will be interesting to watch the outcome of a Florida Division of Elections Commission complaint filed against her as a result of her questionable campaign finance choices.

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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