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Will Newton, Lisa Wheeler-Brown square off at St. Pete Democrat meeting

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Two St. Pete City Council candidates fielded questions from St. Pete Democrats during the group’s monthly meeting Wednesday night. Will Newton and Lisa Wheeler-Brown touched on several issues that have long been discussed on the campaign trail, including the newly created Southside Community Redevelopment Area and the fate of the Tampa Bay Rays.

What emerged as new during the casual Q&A were the candidate’s individual styles of formulating messages. Wheeler-Brown maintained a positive tone throughout questioning. When asked about her top two challenges, she listed only that there would be a learning curve, but suggested that any perceived challenges on council were actually opportunities.

When asked the same question, Newton attempted to capitalize on more specific city policy. He talked about funding being available for projects in the highly impoverished District 7 but said they were “locked up.” It wasn’t clear exactly which funds he was referring to.

Likewise, when asked the typical question, “why should I vote for you,” the two candidates’ styles emerged again.

“I’ll be ready on day one,” Newton said, perhaps playing off Wheeler-Brown’s previous assertion that she would have a learning curve during her first days in office.

Wheeler-Brown fired back that she is more in step with her community. Several times she played on her activism and the direct impacts, including the arrest and conviction of her son’s murderer.

“I have been working step by step finding out what they need,” she said.

Overall the conversation was friendly. The two candidates even shared a chuckle or two over various quips from Democrats.

The key area that sets Newton and Wheeler-Brown apart continues to be the proposed contract to allow the Tampa Bay Rays to begin searching for stadium sites outside St. Pete. Wheeler-Brown supports the Mayor’s Memorandum of Understanding. Newton doesn’t.

“That land is so precious,” Wheeler-Brown said. She added it could be used to develop affordable housing and create jobs – “things our community so desperately needs.”

Newton has said in the past that he supports striking a deal, but the one previously proposed just wasn’t quite there. He hinted that a stipulation that the Tropicana Field site be included in the Southside CRA. It’s currently in downtown West. Newton’s idea would likely get pushback from many who would like to see the site’s potential for rich revenue included in the Downtown CRA.

During the St. Pete Democrats’ meeting Newton added to his argument, noting that the deal is no longer on the table. However, during a Tiger Bay meeting last month, Rays president Brian Auld signaled a strong willingness to continue working with the city to strike a deal. He didn’t offer specifics on how much the team was willing to bend, however.

Wheeler-Brown’s support for the Mayor’s Rays MOU earned her a key endorsement from the Tampa Bay Times. In its endorsement, the Times questioned Newton’s bargaining skills he touts as a one-up on other candidates, saying he failed to make any progress on the city’s longstanding dispute with the county over EMS services. Newton worked previously as a firefighter union head and still works part time.

“I don’t know what they’re talking about,” Newton said when asked to explain what the Times meant.

He went on to explain that his work as a union leader had no role in negotiating with the county.

“We weren’t allowed to do it,” Newton said. “They were just trying to justify their endorsement.”

On the Southside CRA both candidates acknowledged that the funding source is long-term. However, there is about $500,000 to work with now. Newton said the money should be used for job training. Wheeler-Brown said the money available should be used to create jobs. Long-term she wants to see livable wages in the community.

“That reduces crime as well,” she said.

Newton and Wheeler-Brown are running in a five-way race for District 7, which includes two of the city’s poorest and most crime-laden neighborhoods, Child’s Park and Midtown. The other three candidates are Aaron Sharpe, Sheila Scott-Griffin and Lewis Stephens.

Stephens was invited to the forum, but did not attend. Sharpe and Griffin were not invited because they are not registered Democrats. The race is nonpartisan, but the group decided, since it’s a club for Democrats, to only invite those in their own party.

The primary election is August 25 and is closed to just District 7 voters. The top two vote-getters will move on to the November general election. That race will be open citywide. Wheeler-Brown and Newton are considered frontrunners.

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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