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Will Newton says he can close deal in election to replace his brother on St. Pete City Council

Will Newton is a state firefighter’s union official handling Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Will Newton is a state firefighter’s union official handling Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Will Newton has always made opportunities for himself. As he talked about his life recently, a self-portrait emerges of a man with a "do-it-yourself" mindset.

But his City Council campaign clashes with this self-described independence. That's because the person he hopes to succeed on the board is his older brother, Wengay.

Will the name recognition and legacy of his brother's stormy eight years as an elected official doom his candidacy? Or will it propel him to victory?

"Judging someone by their brother is a really bad idea," said City Council member Steve Kornell, who has endorsed Newton.

As the youngest of eight children of a single mother who worked as a maid, Newton collected bottles for deposit, cut lawns and gathered mangoes to sell at Williams Park, often side by side with Wengay.

He took in a nephew, quickly married his high school sweetheart and went to work at McDonald's, rising to store manager. He went to the fire academy at night.

"He's a natural-born leader," said Wengay Newton, who is getting forced from office because of term limits.

Newton, 49, is running against Lisa Wheeler-Brown for the District 7 seat, which represents Childs Park, Midtown and other southern neighborhoods.

He has shown prowess as a fundraiser. Despite declaring his candidacy five months after Wheeler-Brown did, he has eclipsed her in campaign cash, boosted by lots of union money. The latest filings show Newton with a slight cash lead: $57,085 to $55,545.

He says the City Council is a natural next step for his career. Newton worked as a St. Petersburg firefighter/emergency medical technician for 23 years, serving as the firefighter's union president from 2002 to 2011. He retired in 2013 with a shoulder injury.

He said he's proud of his work, but added that trauma scenes took an emotional toll.

"What bothered me most were abusive situations" involving spouses and children, he said.

Newton has been criticized by Wheeler-Brown supporters for failing to reach labor agreements three times during his years as union boss. He says deadlocks are part of any labor negotiation. He points to his multiple re-elections — he was re-elected every two years — before he was voted out after a contentious 2011 impasse.

Former Mayor Bill Foster, who scrapped with Newton when he ran the city, declined to be interviewed about Newton, saying his mother taught him not to say anything if he can't say something nice. Fire Chief Jim Large didn't respond to an interview request.

Newton's inability to strike a deal with City Hall is a red flag, said Karl Nurse, who supports Wheeler-Brown.

"You need five votes (on the council)," said Nurse, who has frequently sparred with Wengay Newton on the dais. "My fear is he won't be able to do that."

Newton points to former mayor Rick Baker's endorsement as proof of his ability to reach consensus. Amy Foster, Bill Dudley and incoming council member Ed Montanari have also endorsed him.

Kornell said Newton is a "known commodity" for him. He scoffs at the notion that Newton couldn't close a deal as a union negotiator.

"Sometimes he got what he wanted, sometimes he didn't," Kornell said. "But he would also come out smiling and keep moving forward."

Previous jobs include stints as an insurance agent and mortgage broker.

In 2012, he paid $32,139 in back taxes to the IRS, which had issued two liens in 2010. Newton has declined to discuss the matter with the Tampa Bay Times other than to say it was a disagreement with the federal government and he paid off the liens.

Currently, he works as a state firefighter's union official handling Pinellas and Pasco. It's a job he can do while a council member, he says, and he doesn't see a conflict if a St. Petersburg firefighter's dispute came before him.

"I haven't had any direct dealing (with the local union) in the past four years," he said.

Newton has been endorsed by the firefighters and police unions.

A major point of difference between Newton and Wheeler-Brown has the Tampa Bay Rays' desire to look outside St. Petersburg for a new stadium. Wheeler-Brown said she would support a deal to let them look. Newton has said he wants better terms.

Newton said the race should be about more than the Rays, but he says he's willing to listen to good ideas. One such idea, Newton said, would be to redraw the boundaries of a downtown tax-incentive district to include Tropicana Field's 85 acres, estimated to be worth at least $500 million in redevelopment. That would honor the sacrifice of black families forced to move when the stadium was built, he said.

He wouldn't say whether such a move would clinch a deal for him.

"Let's not go down that road," he said.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

Will Newton says he can close deal in election to replace his brother on St. Pete City Council 10/15/15 [Last modified: Thursday, October 15, 2015 10:06am]
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