St. Pete election post mortem: Wheeler-Brown, incumbents win St. Pete council races

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Anyone expecting to white-knuckle their wine glasses while awaiting the results of St. Pete’s citywide council elections Nov. 3 must have been disappointed.

None of the council races — districts 1, 5 or 7 — was even close, not even District 7, the race for a south St. Pete seat everyone thought was going to be a squeaker.

In that one, medical billing specialist and community activist Lisa Wheeler-Brown won against opponent Will Newton, a retired firefighter and union leader. She won by nearly 16 points, a margin that dwarfs what polling suggested.

“It feels great that the voters chose me,” Wheeler-Brown said moments after she found out she’d won at her victory party at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African-American History Museum. “I’m very humbled that they chose me to represent them.”

Her backers, largely progressives, surrounded her.

“Lisa’s victory symbolizes progress,” said St. Pete Councilwoman Darden Rice. “Lisa’s win means that someone is coming to council with a background and commitment to work on southside economic issues in a meaningful way.”
In the other two races, predictably, incumbents Charlie Gerdes (District 1) and Steve Kornell (District 5) won by 30 points and 11 points, respectively.

It was an unusual city election.

Turnout was low — 17 percent countywide — as is always expected in an off year. But many engaged in Tampa Bay politics saw its outcome as pivotal.

The runoff election for south St. Petersburg’s District 7 seat was of particular interest.

Wheeler-Brown and Newton were facing off in a contest for the seat that Newton’s older brother, Wengay Newton, is vacating due to term limits.

While the campaigns themselves generally stayed positive, supporters of the two lobbed nasty attacks at their opponents, with Newton supporters going for the throat via third-party attack mailers. They attacked her on everything from campaign finance reporting errors to allegations that she profited from her death of her son, Cabretti, by way of a nonprofit she set up in his memory.

“The only thing that truly bothered me was everything about my son, Cabretti,” Wheeler-Brown said.

With the exception of the Tampa Tribune, which pulled its endorsement over her use of $500 in campaign funds for dental work, her supporters stuck with her.

“I think the voters in Pinellas have shown on a number of occasions that they look beyond the usual politics, the dirty politics, and they know the essence of the person,” said County Commissioner Ken Welch during Wheeler-Brown’s party. “And Lisa has proven through her leadership in the community what she’s all about. And I think folks understood that, and they expressed that tonight. And they really rejected the kind of negative politics that we saw.”

Even with the attacks against Wheeler-Brown, it was hard to find anyone who had anything bad to say about Newton.

“In a sense I think Will may have been a victim of campaign malfeasance,” said St. Pete Councilwoman Darden Rice. “He’s not a bad guy, but the negativity coming from his side of things just drowned out anything positive about him.”

Wheeler-Brown likely got a boost from a Tampa Bay Times endorsement.

Her allies, most of them, anyway, back her because of her community activism background and her progressive leanings. But the newspaper based its endorsements largely on how the candidates are likely to vote on a deal between the city and the Tampa Bay Rays that would allow the team to explore stadium sites in Hillsborough County.

Wheeler-Brown has maintained she would support such a deal. The Times endorsed her, and when she won, their headline mentioned the Rays before it mentioned her.

The paper also endorsed Philip Garrett, Kornell’s relatively green opponent in District 5, a move that puzzled many given Kornell’s positive track record over the past six years. The edit board sniffed that he was a “disappointment” because Kornell has taken a hard line on the stadium issue; he wants the city to be adequately compensated.

“I just ran my race and I got used to being called a disappointment,” he said. “It is what it is, but the voters didn’t agree.”
It’s unclear how much influence the endorsement had on the percentage by which he won, and Kornell didn’t want to speculate.

“First of all, I think an 11-point win is good,” he said. “I’m happy with that. Any win is good and I’ll leave it with that.”
Steve spoke with CL at Wheeler-Brown’s victory party, which he attended to wish her well despite being one of several sitting council members to endorse her opponent.

That’s because the election is over, he said, and it’s time to move on.

“It’s time to govern,” he said. “That was politics. That was the race, and we’ll be working together. I never was against Lisa. I never said one negative thing about Lisa. I like Lisa. I knew Will a little better so I endorsed him. But Lisa and I will work together well.” 

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