CLEARWATER — More than 30 years ago, when Jonathan Wade saw drugs and crime hit a peak in the North Greenwood neighborhood where he was born and raised, he felt he had to do something.
Wade had already turned his own life around after a 1980 drug arrest. He went on to become a licensed social worker to help others in recovery. His work was celebrated in 1991 in Washington, D.C., when he became one of seven Achievement Against All Odds Award recipients in the U.S.
So in the 1990s, as president of the North Greenwood Association, Wade said he wanted to lead change in his community.
He worked with then-Clearwater Police Chief Sid Klein on a citizen response team that paired residents with police when responding to disturbances in the neighborhood. He led anti-crime marches through the streets past known drug houses, with protesters chanting: ”If you keep selling crack, we will be back.”
He founded a 12-step support group for addiction that still meets today. In the mid 2000s, he held community meetings to push residents to come forward with information on the perpetrators of unsolved homicides.
Now, while he said he supports ambitious projects like the city’s $84 million renovation of the downtown waterfront, Wade, 66, said he wants to refocus city priorities on the neighborhoods, like he did in North Greenwood.
After retiring from social work in 2019 and entering the ministry, Wade said he has the time to serve in office, a “bucket list item” he’s had since his days of working with mayors, City Council members and others as a neighborhood activist.
Wade, pastor of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, faces two opponents in the March 15 election for the at-large Seat 5, which is being vacated by City Council member Hoyt Hamilton due to term limits. The other candidates are Church of Scientology defector Aaron Smith-Levin and artist and activist Lina Teixeira.
“I’m a senior now, but I don’t think I have old ideas,” Wade said. “I have youthful ideas, and I just want to be able to leave a legacy for the young people to follow.”
Wade, who is African American, was raised by his grandmother on Carlton Street in North Greenwood and still displays her Bible in his office.
He attended Curtis Elementary and entered seventh grade at Pinellas High, which included middle school grades. Both campuses were all-Black, but as integration efforts took hold, Wade was transferred to Dunedin Middle School for eighth grade and found himself in the minority. He said the transition took a toll.
“I went from a marching band to a walking band, from wearing maroon and gold to wearing a kilt,” Wade said, referring to Dunedin’s Scottish theme. “It was just a big shift trying to make a culture fit.”
He joined the Navy after high school. After an honorable discharge in 1978, Wade said, he returned home and fell into cocaine use.
After an arrest for marijuana possession in 1980, he served a year in jail in 1983 for violating probation. It was in that jail cell that Wade said a voice came to him.
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“That was a turning point,” Wade said. “I was in jail but jail wasn’t in me.”
After his release, Wade worked as a gas pipefitter for a few years but wanted more from life. He enrolled in the then-St. Petersburg Junior College, where he’d earn Outstanding Student of the Year. The college’s provost nominated him for the national Achievement Against the Odds Award, a recognition launched by then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp and Robert L. Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.
While leading the North Greenwood Association, Wade graduated from the University of South Florida with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work, and went on to work as an addiction counselor at Largo Correction Center. He also worked as an addiction counselor at Bay Pines VA Healthcare System and a social worker for homeless veterans at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.
“I felt like Jonathan Wade was on our side because he was always there,” said Clearwater resident Andrea Bolden, commenting on Wade’s efforts as a community activist working with police to solve crimes. Her husband, Clarence Bolden, was shot and killed in 2002 in a still-unsolved case.
In 2009, Wade’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, and he said he took a leave of absence from work to care for her. During that time, Wade said, his family life reached a low.
In 2010, Wade was arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery following an argument where he allegedly slapped and punched his then-wife, according the complaint in court records. Wade acknowledged slapping her but denies punching her. His former wife did not respond to a request for comment from the Tampa Bay Times, but she filed a request with the court at the time not to prosecute.
The case was dismissed in 2011 after Wade completed a deferred prosecution agreement.
But the incident served as another wake-up call.
“I laid in bed, I was in the fetal position,” Wade said. “I was depressed, I was embarrassed. People knew me, they knew my character, they knew the work I did in the community and in one instance, my name is tarnished. It was hard for me to hold my head up.”
Wade turned to his faith. He began reading a book by pastor Wayne Cordeiro, and was struck by the message of finding strength in weakness. He said he then found his calling to go into the ministry.
“I’m saying ‘Lord, don’t nobody want to hear from me,’” Wade said. “He said, ‘You’re right, they don’t want to hear from you, they want to hear from me. Now I can use you.’ When I was broken, I was most available to serve Him.”
After being ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2016, Wade is finishing his master of divinity at Payne Theological Seminary.
As a City Council member, he said, his priority would be to represent the needs of neighborhoods, which includes doing more to solicit resident feedback and ready infrastructure for climate change. He’d like to take savings made through energy conservation in city buildings and use it to fund more affordable housing in Clearwater.
Wade said the city should do more to support citizens returning from incarceration, including implementing work training programs.
“The city can’t do it all, but we can work with the county and school system to make sure people get a fair shake,” Wade said. “That’s what I’d champion.”