House District 70 Democrats squabble over experience, votes and fast food
Weeks before ballots hit mailboxes, the three Democratic candidates vying to represent House District 70 are starting to jab at each other.
The contest pits former St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton, 52, against two political novices: Dan Fiorini, 60, a small-business owner, and attorney Christopher “CJ” Czaia, 56.
Fiorini and Czaia lack name recognition in parts of the district, but both men said Newton’s prior service on City Council doesn’t give him an advantage.
“What did he ever do on council?” Fiorini asked after meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board last week. “He was always on the losing side of 7-1 votes.”
“He’s known, but people aren’t enamored with him,” Czaia said of Newton.
Both men said Newton was always on the losing end of legislation votes.
Newton, who served under three mayors during his eight years on City Council, welcomed the criticism.
“If it wasn’t representative of the kids in District 7, I voted against it,” he said about his council votes. “I’ll wear that badge. That’s a cross I’ll bear.”
House District 70 sprawls over parts of four counties — Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sarasota and Manatee — but the largest block of voters resides in the predominantly black neighborhoods of St. Petersburg. The seat is now occupied by state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who is seeking a state Senate seat. The Democratic winner will face Republican Cori Fournier in November.
The candidates bring different backgrounds to the race.
Newton runs a photography business and spent 18 years at Xerox Corp. Fiorini owns a St. Petersburg custom frame business and once served as legislative aide for former Rep. Helen Spivey.
Czaia, a former Manatee County Democratic official, has lived or worked in all four of the district’s counties. He operates law offices in Tampa and Minnesota, focusing on immigration, personal injury and criminal cases.
But Newton’s years on City Council is what sets him apart, he said. He touted his efforts to get a summer jobs program from nothing in 2008 to $850,000 in 2016. He says he will be a consensus builder if sent to Tallahassee.
“I’m excited,” he said. “You can get things done that are detrimental to both sides. I know what works.”
So far, Newton, who began his campaign in January 2015, is winning the cash race.
He has collected nearly $30,000 in contributions. Fiorini entered the race in February but has collected nearly $19,000. Czaia jumped in weeks ago with $11,000, but he loaned his campaign $10,000, according to state records.
The contest has already turned negative.
Fiorini accused Newton of using campaign donations to buy personal meals and groceries and pointed to numerous purchases below $20.
“Unlike my opponent, I am not going to Chick-fil-A with campaign donations,” Fiorini said. “My donors didn’t give me money to buy food. That shows his judgment.”
Campaign records show that Newton has made 85 expenditures for food, totaling more than $4,000. Of that, three fundraising events accounted for $1,100. In comparison, Fiorini has spent nearly $1,000 on meals for large events.
Not so fast, Newton says. He acknowledged he should have better detailed how he spent the money. Several “food” purchases from Walmart and Sam’s Club should have been labeled as fundraising events, he added. He said he doesn’t have money for paid staffers and buys meals when volunteers help him campaign.
Asked about the $27 he spent at Popeyes on June 22 in Orlando, Newton said: “We went to work the area for” contributions. The Florida Realtors Political Advocacy Committee donated $1,000 that day, records show.
One of Newton’s donors isn’t concerned with the food purchases. Gulfport Realtor Poul Hornsleth said he attended an April event where Newton “put out a spread” for supporters.
“I don’t see Newt as a splurger,” Hornsleth said. “He is responsive to his constituents. I’m very glad to continue to contribute to Wengay Newton.”
Czaia drew criticism for an address he listed on campaign filings. The building at 200 2nd Ave. S sits outside district boundaries and is a UPS store. Czaia said he uses a mailbox at the business for his campaign.
At a reporter’s request, Czaia provided his driver’s license to show that his primary residence is inside the district’s boundary. “I did not move into St. Petersburg for convenience,” he said.
Fiorini, the president of a homeowner’s association at a condominium complex, is not without blemishes.
He filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2010 and blamed the Great Recession for causing him to lose “almost everything” he had.
At the time he closed a former business, Fiorini reported more than $228,000 in liabilities and about $170,000 in credit card debt, records show. He said he later opened his current business with “$15,000 to $17,000” from retirement accounts.
In April, one of Fiorini’s neighbors told police that he assaulted her during a dispute over an AirBnb dispute at the complex. St. Petersburg police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said the agency forwarded the complaint to prosecutors.
An officer, she said, could not establish probable cause and believed the woman had an old bruise on her arm that was “not consistent with a grabbing injury.” The woman’s statement also didn’t match that of a witness, she added. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office has not yet decided whether to prosecute.
Fiorini scoffed at the accusation, saying he did “yell” at the woman during the encounter but did not grab her. “Not everybody likes me,” he said, laughing about problems he encounters when enforcing HOA rules.
While it’s common for politicians to bring handlers or aides to the meetings, Fiorini pushed a stroller into the room. The stroller held Rolf Pierre, a 13-year-old Dachshund, who did not bark or make a noise during the meeting. Fiorini later joked that he is called the “crazy white guy with the dog” in St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood.
Newton also displayed one of his frequent traits from his council days as soon as he sat down. He asked editors to delay the meeting for two minutes so could finish sending an email to a donor.
Times staff writer Charles Frago contributed to this report.