Residents filled St. Pete's Enoch Davis Center for a final NAACP-sponsored City Council candidate forum Monday night to get a glimpse of the people who hope to represent them at the city level.
Four City Council candidates engaged in an oft-tense and lively two-hour forum including District 5 candidates Steve Kornell, who is seeking reelection, and challenger Philip Garrett and District 7 candidates Lisa Wheeler-Brown and Winthrop ‘Will’ Newton.
Coming out strong and highly intense in her opening remarks was Lisa Wheeler-Brown, who addressed the allegations Newton and his supporters have lobbed throughout the race. The two have been engaged in a bloody battle for the south St. Pete seat being vacated by Councilman Wengay Newton, Will Newton's older brother, due to term limits.
“My opponent and some of his supporters have been saying some pretty terrible things about me and my murdered son,” said Wheeler-Brown. “They’re accusing me of profiting from my murdered son’s murder.”
Wheeler-Brown was referring to attacks over a nonprofit set up in the wake of her son's death. Critics are accusing her of mismanaging the money, though her campaign said the fund only had $300 in it — not even enough to form a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
The forum continued with candidate responses on questions concerning economic development and the Failure Factories series, a Tampa Bay Times exposé of five failing south St. Petersburg schools.
Of course, the Tampa Bay Rays stadium issue arose.
Newton and Kornell remained firm in their opposition to a proposed deal to let the Rays explore stadium sites in Hillsborough (which could cost the team millions if they leave) and Wheeler-Brown and Garrett proposing the city should support it.
Despite the mudslinging and the differences over the Rays, Wheeler-Brown and Newton shared a similar vision for the community in providing better housing and job opportunities.
But Garrett and Kornell had key differences, with Garrett accusing Kornell, who was first elected in 2009, of making little to no progress over the past six years, especially with education, which is not something technically within the council's purview. But Kornell was not afraid to hit back, citing his involvement in educating youths and fighting child homelessness, which he said would profoundly impact education at schools with higher numbers of impoverished students.
“You want kids to come in ready to learn, well of course we do,” said Kornell. “To do that your parents have to have a good job. You have to have a house – not sleeping in a car.”
While the candidates were there to pitch their visions for the future for the city, attendees were hoping to see beyond the mudslinging for a better understanding of what’s at stake this election.
“I really just want to understand what are some of the positions that some of the candidates are taking on specifically key things that are affecting our community,” said resident Kent Channer of District 5, including what the candidates hope to do to create better education and job opportunities.
For other attendees, such as former St. Pete NAACP branch president Ray Tampa, this was a chance to make sure the city continues to grow and prosper especially in education, given recent revelations about the city's failing schools.
“I cried when I read what I read [Failure Factories],” said Tampa. “I’m very passionate about education.”
Although confirmed to attend, District 1 candidates Monica Abbott and Charlie Gerdes were not present at the forum.
Residents get to make their choice with their vote Nov. 3. All eligible voters can vote in all three council elections regardless of the district in which they reside.
Zenena Moguel is a student reporter at University of South Florida St. Petersburg's Neighborhood News Bureau.