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Three political veterans battle to replace Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch

Democrats Rene Flowers, Frank Peterman Jr. and Wengay Newton each spent time on the St. Petersburg City Council.
Rene Flowers, (left) and Wengay Newton (center) and Frank Peterman Jr. (right)  are vying for the Pinellas County Commission District 7 seat.
Rene Flowers, (left) and Wengay Newton (center) and Frank Peterman Jr. (right) are vying for the Pinellas County Commission District 7 seat. [ Photos courtesy of Frank Peterman, Rene Flowers and Wengay Newton ]
Published Jul. 22, 2020
Updated Jul. 22, 2020

As the Aug. 18 primary election approaches, three well-known St. Petersburg Democrats are battling to represent a Pinellas County Commission district that hasn’t had an open seat in decades.

State Rep. Wengay Newton, Pinellas School Board member Rene Flowers and the Rev. Frank Peterman Jr. want the District 7 seat that longtime Commissioner Ken Welch has held since 2000. Each of the three candidates has served on the St. Petersburg City Council.

Without hosting fundraisers or other events to sway undecided voters, candidates have turned to social media, countless telephone calls and mailers. The coronavirus has halted handshaking and knocking on voters’ doors for support.

Each candidate said his or her record sets them apart when compared to the others.

“I hope that my 12 years of constant governance and my body of work speaks for itself,” said Newton, 56, who often drew scorn from City Council members for challenging spending decisions. “I hope voters judge us for the work we’ve done.”

Flowers said she has been hosting online virtual meetings with voters and spending hours on the telephone with those who remain undecided.

“I have a chance to communicate with them,” she said. “It’s about issues related to people. I can provide my record and former experiences.”

Peterman said he’s using social media and has practiced social distancing and wore a mask while connecting with voters at food distributions and other events.

“My service in government and ministry has been pretty long,” he said. “It’s a different kind of connection. People come to you for everything, for social, spiritual and socioeconomic issues.”

In November, the winner of the Democratic primary will face Maria Scruggs, who is running with no party affiliation, and write-in candidate Anthony Hart. His name will not appear on the ballot.

In November, Welch told the Tampa Bay Times that he would not make an endorsement in the Democratic primary because of his close association with Flowers and Peterman. He did not seek the seat because he plans to run for the St. Petersburg mayoral position in 2021. Of the four commission seats on the 2020 ballot, Welch’s district is the only one without an incumbent running.

While campaign signs, bumper stickers, billboards and donations do not guarantee votes, Newton has raised $51,273; Flowers, $41,777; and Peterman, $16,243, records show.

Peterman’s top priorities include economic development, community development and affordable housing. Peterman, 58, also wants to broaden minority business opportunities. He has won endorsements from the Rev. Alvin Miller and Charley Williams, a former Pinellas County educator for 34 years.

The former state representative and Department of Juvenile Justice secretary has spent recent years focused on community outreach through his job as pastor of The Rock of Jesus Missionary Baptist Church.

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One of his biggest accomplishments, he said, was helping to lead the state Legislature’s effort in 2006 to establish the Florida Council on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys. The council, under the Florida Attorney General, works to improve the lives of Black males by reducing school dropout rates and rates of violent crime.

He said he stands out because he once ran a large state agency and has connections in Tallahassee who could help the county, adding: “It’s about how much did you accomplish? How much did you serve the people?”

Flowers’ top priorities include affordable and workforce housing and expanding small business opportunities for women and minorities. Flowers has won endorsements from the SEIU Florida Public Services Union, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, Pinellas commissioner Janet Long and Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson.

While on the Pinellas County School Board, Flowers said she has worked to increase minority hiring and add minority leaders across the school district, adding: ”They’re now more reflective of the community.”

Flowers criticized one of Newton’s recent mailers that misspelled the name of St. Petersburg City Council member Robert Blackmon, adding: “My endorsements are important. I’m going to get their names right.”

Flowers, 55, has made a name for herself as a community steward, with stints on many boards, from the YMCA of Greater Tampa Bay to the National Council of Negro Women. She also served as president of the Florida League of Cities in 2006, where she launched a task force to provide municipalities with information and education on affordable housing.

Newton, who has reputation of being a tireless campaigner, says his top priority is to use resources like tax credits, the Penny for Pinellas sales tax and block grants to help alleviate poverty. His biggest accomplishments in the 2020 legislative session, he said, include having three of his bills signed into law by the governor. Those include one that provides accountability over the boards of directors for special neighborhood improvement districts.

He won endorsements from the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, the Pinellas Realtor Organization, other labor groups and St. Petersburg Council members Brandi Gabbard, Ed Montanari and Blackmon.

Newton said the public must measure the records and accomplishments of each candidate before casting votes. He said Flowers’ years on the School Board have not helped improve schools in St. Petersburg’s poorest black neighborhoods, after the Tampa Bay Times exposed the decline of the schools in 2015.

“We still have problems in those schools,” Newton said. “What has she done?”

Flowers acknowledged that problems still exist in one school, but said changes occurred at others.

“He may want a talking point, but he’s not going to get it,” Flowers said about Newton. “His information is totally inaccurate. It is absurd.”

Peterman took a conciliatory approach to the campaign.

“We are all qualified for this seat,” he said. “Anyone of us would do a good job.”