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Final candidate forum for St. Pete Council race highlights differences in crowded field

The five candidates to replace term-limited St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton have agreed on most issues so far in the campaign.

Poverty, affordable housing, gentrification, jobs and more opportunities for youth have all been unanimously identified as the major challenges facing District 7, which covers Midtown, Childs Park and other southern neighborhoods has just over 19,000 registered voters.

But the final candidate forum before the Aug. 25 primary on Tuesday was a night for drawing distinctions and laying cards on the table.

Will Newton, a former firefighter union official, told the crowd at the Enoch Davis Recreation Center that he was the only candidate who would stand up to the Tampa Bay Rays---and the only candidate to have negotiated an agreements with the city.

He said residents should be upset that negotiations are in limbo until the baseball season ends on a deal to let team look outside St. Petersburg for a new stadium site.

"It's not because of baseball season. It's because they waiting for one of us to be elected," said Newton, who is the only candidate who said he won't endorse a deal similar to the one rejected by council last year. "I won't be a rubber stamp for anyone."

Lisa Wheeler-Brown, a longtime neighborhood activist, emphasized her close relationship with city staff and elected officials "all the way up to Mayor Kriseman."

She said the district, the poorest in the city, needs someone who knows how to get things done and can draw on personal ties to help that happen.

"I already have the established relationships and I'm ready to continue to fight for you," she said.

She also said she's not afraid to stand up to pressure by some in her own community, specifically about cooperating with police. She said the wants more police interaction with residents in the district to reduce crime.

"They call me 'snitch,"" she said. "Keep on calling me that."

Sheila-Scott Griffin, who many observers think in a close race with Newton and Wheeler-Brown to be one of two candidates to advance to the Nov. 3 citywide election, took several stances that set her apart from the other candidates.

Unlike Wheeler-Brown, who called for more police in the south side neighborhoods to combat crime, Griffin said police were already "tripping over each other" to arrest juveniles,who are often just making minor youthful mistakes. She said the city should spend more on early childhood education and social programs instead of police.

Griffin also said the recent Tampa Bay Times story about five failing schools in south St. Petersburg wasn't the biggest issue facing the city. Instead, economic hardship was the biggest obstacle, she said.

"We had community because we had busineses. I'm concerned that right now we've become sharecroppers instead of freedmen...They want to build affordable housing, but they want to give us houses that we pay someone else to rent from," Griffin said.

The other two candidates, Aaron Sharpe and Lewis Stephens, returned to familiar themes. Sharpe, the only white candidate in the race, stressed collaboration and bridging differences to get things done.Stephens, the youngest candidate at 26, said a younger perspective was needed at City Hall and reiterated that his focus would be on providing opportunities for youth.

Newton, the younger brother of Wengay Newton, suggested many of his brother's goals were left unfulfilled because of a lack of support from council member Karl Nurse, who has endorsed Wheeler-Brown.

Nurse, who is white, represents District 6, the other black-majority council district in the city. Nurse won his seat in 2009, which had previously been held by black politicians.

"You had two seats, now you have a chance at securing this seat. Look at the records, look at who's playing in these seats and make sure you keep control of District 7," Newton said. "You need to make sure you keep control of this seat. You need to make sure the person you vote for next Tuesday is going to keep control of this seat and will hold on to it until you can get control of District 6. So our motions will be heard and the council will have to vote on the records on issues that are important to us."

The forum was sponsored by the St. Pete Business League and the St. Pete Bulletin Newspaper.