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Fire union endorses St. Pete City Council incumbents, including Wengay Newton, brother of union boss



ST. PETERSBURG -- An endorsement from the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters, Local 747 is considered a prize in city politics.

The 277-member union can chip in a $500 contribution and can throw fundraisers. More importantly, it provides boots on the ground, with help in walking neighborhoods, putting out signs, working the phones.

So City Council incumbents Steve Kornell, Bill Dudley and Wengay Newton were probably quite happy to get endorsements Friday from the union. Kornell, who wasn't endorsed by the union when he ran for council in 2009, faces a challenge from Bill Protz. Dudley, who is a darling with firefighters, is running against Brent Hatley. And Newton was endorsed in 2007 by the union when he faced Gershom Faulkner, who he challenging him again this year.

True, the endorsement comes less than a month before the City Council will vote on breaking a stalemate between the union and Mayor Bill Foster and his administration on a new contract. But questions about the contract weren't asked when the candidates were interviewed, and City Attorney John Wolfe instructed incumbents to avoid addressing the contract at all because it's an ongoing legal matter.

But for Faulkner, the timing of the endorsement isn't what's unfair. It's that Union president Winthrop Newton was allowed to vote. You see, Wengay Newton is his brother.

"We anticipated this would happen, but it's still a conflict," Faulkner said. "Most other organizations wouldn't allow that. Most other organizations would require the person to excuse himself. It's unfortunate."

Winthrop Newton said he voted, but only after a sub-committee recommended his brother. And then he was one of three votes on the union's executive board that approved the recommendation. And it did so unanimously, Newton said.

"As president, I have to vote for everyone," Newton said. "But I've made sure we used the committee format so that my vote doesn't really matter. I'm still one vote, there are other ones out there."

Wengay Newton said he took offense at Faulkner's implication that it was inappropriate for his brother to endorse him.

"What should I do, shoot my brother because I want to make a difference in my community?" Newton said. "For (Faulkner) to cry about what he can't get, I can't do anything about that."

This is St. Petersburg, a city of about 250,000 with an incredibly small political class. Dudley, after all, was the high school wrestling coach for both Newtons and was Foster's high school football coach.

And this is the same union that endorsed Leslie Curran's 1997 mayoral run when Rick Feinberg was its president. Who is Feinberg? During that year's mayor's race, Feinberg was Curran's boyfriend. They married shortly after the election, which was won by then-Mayor David Fischer.

-- Michael Van Sickler, Times Staff Writer

[Last modified: Friday, September 2, 2011 6:53pm]


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