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  1. Florida Politics

District 7 candidates move away from Wengay Newton's legacy

ST. PETERSBURG — For the past eight years, Council Member Wengay Newton has represented the neediest district in the city.

The issues facing the area — high poverty, high crime, few jobs and poor schools — are many, and Newton has been anything but shy about talking about them.

His pugilistic style has earned him open scorn from fellow council members.

"You have to advocate. Never surrender," said Newton, who regularly ends up by himself when it's time to vote. "District 7 suffers so much. You can't turn your back. "

Term limits mean Newton will soon leave the council and there are five people — a neighborhood activist, Newton's own brother, an ex-lawyer, a former bank executive, and a behavioral specialist — vying for the seat.

Candidates Lisa Wheeler Brown, Will Newton, Sheila Scott Griffin, Aaron Sharpe and Lewis Stephens will be on the Aug. 25 primary ballot. The top two vote-getters move on to a city-wide runoff in November.

So far, the candidates often echo each other on the issues, with everyone claiming their top priorities are creating more jobs and promoting families in a district that includes Midtown and Childs Park, both predominantly black areas.

But there is one area in which the candidates are trying to distinguish themselves — style. And for some, that means moving away from Newton's brash demeanor.

Brown, a community activist, paused a long moment when asked about Newton's approach before saying she will be more of a coalition-builder on the council.

His brother, Will Newton, a retired firefighter who now is a statewide union rep, says his experience as a negotiator will serve him well representing District 7, one of two majority-minority districts.

Griffin, whose former life as an attorney ended when the Florida Bar suspended her law license and ordered her to pay restitution for mishandling cases, calls herself "the game changer."

Sharpe, the former banker, says he'll lead by listening. Stephens, the youngest candidate who works as a behavioral specialist at Campbell Park Elementary school, says he's the voice of a new generation.

"Everybody has the same message, the same priorities," said Brother John Muhammad, president of the Child's Park Neighborhood Association. "But I'd like to hear who is going to get it done."

At a City Hall candidate forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Thursday, the five candidates agreed on nearly everything.

Wengay Newton was in attendance, sitting in the front row, but his name or record rarely surfaced.

Instead, the hour-long forum often sounded like a contest to see which candidate could say how they would collaborate and listen to their council colleagues and constituents the most.

One way to distinguish the candidates is to look at the campaign donations and endorsements.

With less than two weeks before the primary, Newton and Wheeler-Brown stand out in both categories.

Wheeler-Brown has been endorsed by the Tampa Bay Times and Tampa Tribune, the Stonewall Democrats and council members Karl Nurse and Darden Rice.

Through early August, she raised $29, 411.

Newton has been endorsed by the police and fire unions, the Pinellas Realtor Organization, State Rep. Darryl Rouson and council member Steve Kornell.

Newton, who entered the race months later than Wheeler-Brown, has closed the money gap, raising $21,565.

Griffin has raised $7,118 and emerged as a strong challenger to the frontrunners. She has been endorsed by the Rev. Manuel Sykes, former state Rep. Frank Peterman Jr., businessman Deveron Gibbons and activists Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter and Sevell Brown.

Sharpe, endorsed by council members Charlie Gerdes, Bill Dudley and former mayor Bill Foster, raised $4,705. Lewis Stephens has netted $696.

The primary has generated regional interest because whoever advances would control the destiny of a deal between the city and the Tampa Bay Rays to allow the team to explore stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Newton is the only candidate who said he isn't ready to sign off on a deal.

At Thursday's forum, the Rays deal didn't come up. Instead, the candidates talked about gentrification, youth crime and employment, affordable housing and economic development.

Those are the same issues Wengay Newton has worked on since 2007. He said some progress has been made, but not nearly enough.

Part of the reason, he said, is that the poverty, crime and lack of opportunity in his district is unique in the city.

"When you start talking about the issues germane to the district, they may fall on deaf ears, because other council members don't have those issues in their district. It doesn't resonate in other areas," Newton said. "The problem as I see it, is you need five people to get things done on council."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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