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Lisa Wheeler-Brown, an avowed leader with a complex history

 
Lisa Wheeler-Brown is a 47-year-old part-time medical billing specialist and a past CONA president.
Lisa Wheeler-Brown is a 47-year-old part-time medical billing specialist and a past CONA president.
Published Oct. 15, 2015

Lisa Wheeler-Brown has her detractors.

The people who told her to mind her own business when she canvassed some of the tougher streets in St. Petersburg to find her son's killer.

A former friend who feels she placed her political ambition above loyalty and fair play.

A former campaign consultant who calls her a thief and a liar.

But she has her supporters, including many who are on the Council of Neighborhood Associations where she served as president last year. Democratic groups like the Stonewall Democrats and City Council members Darden Rice and Karl Nurse, who have endorsed her in her campaign to replace term-limited Wengay Newton on the City Council.

Wheeler-Brown said this is the story of her life: You can't lead without making enemies.

"I don't fall in with the crowd," she said in a recent interview. "I'm my own person."

She's faces a stiff challenge from her District 7 opponent, Will Newton, who's better financed and boasts powerful allies that include his brother, Wengay — the council member they're both trying to replace.

Wheeler-Brown gave Newton plenty of political ammo when she misrepresented her campaign's finances. In February, Wheeler-Brown paid for emergency dental service for a cracked tooth from campaign funds. Compounding her error, she then listed the $500 expense as an office rental for seven months before her campaign filed amended reports.

Wheeler-Brown has since paid back the money. She said she's learned a "very expensive" lesson.

"I'm sorry for what happened," she told the Tampa Bay Times. "A lesson I've learned is to be involved in every aspect of my campaign."

The 47-year-old part-time medical billing specialist's start in public life began tragically with the 2008 murder of her oldest son, Cabretti.

She scoured the streets looking for information on who killed him, eventually helping to solve his murder.

The oldest daughter of a single mother, who worked as a nanny for an affluent Old Northeast family, Wheeler-Brown spent many afternoons playing with kids on Locust Street, a very different world from the south St. Petersburg neighborhood where she lived.

Jumping between white and black worlds in the 1970s and 1980s opened her eyes to the possibilities of crossing racial boundaries, she said.

"If we all just work together, we would eventually get to the seamless city we all talk about all the time," she said.

A track star at Boca Ciega High School, she eventually enlisted in the Army, where she served in South Korea in the dangerous role of refueling helicopters while the deadly blades whirred above her 5-11 body.

For the past 11 years, she has been married to Steven Brown. From 2007 to last year, she has called the police at least 14 times, mostly for domestic violence incidents.

Wheeler-Brown said she and her husband have since attended counseling at their church.

"We're in a better place now," she said in a late September interview.

Brother John Muhammad, a neighborhood activist and president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, said Wheeler-Brown's troubles don't faze him or many people he talks to in the neighborhood.

The campaign financing errors have "raised a few eyebrows," he said, but don't seem to have undermined her campaign.

Although Wheeler-Brown announced five months before Newton, he has overtaken her recently in campaign cash. The latest filings show her total at $55,545, about $1,540 less than Newton.

Wheeler-Brown's rise in St. Petersburg politics has a lot to do with her work with CONA. She served as its president last year, a post that gave her a citywide profile and allowed her to forge a close working relationship with Mayor Rick Kriseman.

Council member Karl Nurse, who has donated $2,000 to Wheeler-Brown's campaign and endorsed her, said CONA prepared her well for the City Council.

"The nature of CONA is that it forces you to deal with a spectrum of neighborhoods from the richest to the poorest," said Nurse, a former CONA president.

But her immediate predecessor at CONA, Kurt Donley, said her political ambitions overtook her loyalty to their friendship. Donley's tenure as president split the CONA leadership. Wheeler-Brown eventually sided with those who forced Donley out of the organization.

"She has a pattern of putting her own personal gain above those of her allies and the community," said Donley, who is now living temporarily in California. "Her newfound friends were more important than her old allies."

Wheeler-Brown points to her falling out with Donley, a longtime close friend, as an example of her willingness to make tough choices.

"When you are a leader, you will make decisions that will not please everybody," she said.

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