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  1. Florida Politics

New day for Rays? Wheeler-Brown bests Newton for St. Pete City Council

Lisa Wheeler-Brown, right, and City Council member Darden Rice celebrate Wheeler-Brown’s election Tuesday at the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg.
Lisa Wheeler-Brown, right, and City Council member Darden Rice celebrate Wheeler-Brown’s election Tuesday at the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg.
Published Nov. 4, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Voter turnout in Tuesday's election was anemic, but it was enough for Mayor Rick Kriseman to clinch City Council support to break a five-year stalemate with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Kriseman picked up the critical council vote in the District 7 race, where Lisa Wheeler-Brown beat Will Newton, 58 percent to 42 percent. With 30,286 ballots cast, or 17.3 percent of the city's registered voters, about 4,000 voters were the difference in electing Wheeler-Brown.

A former president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, Wheeler-Brown has supported a deal by Kriseman that would allow the Rays to look for stadium sites outside of St. Petersburg, but within the region. Newton, a retired firefighter, had opposed the deal. The City Council rejected the deal in May by a 4-4 vote.

FROM THE ARCHIVE:Another defeat for Rays at St. Pete City Council

"We won!" Wheeler-Brown told a packed house at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. "It's been a long haul. I just thank God for humbling me, for getting me through this."

The mood at Newton's post-campaign party, held in the shadow of Tropicana Field at Ferg's Sports Bar, was somber.

Newton said "time was a great equalizer" in deciding the race. Wheeler-Brown had announced her run in January. He announced in June. Still, he raised about $15,000 more in campaign contributions.

"We both ran good campaigns," Newton said.

Two other council races were decided Tuesday, but incumbents Charlie Gerdes, 59, who supported Kriseman's deal, and Steve Kornell, 49, who opposed it, were easily re-elected.

Gerdes beat Monica Abbott, 66, by 64 percent to 34 percent. Kornell bested 50-year-old Philip Garrett 56 percent to 44 percent in the District 5 contest. Because both incumbents won, Kriseman didn't lose or gain votes he needs to reach an agreement with the Rays.

It was in District 7, which covers Midtown, Childs Park and other southern neighborhoods, that Kriseman clinched the vote. For the past eight years, the district had been represented by Newton's brother, Wengay, an outspoken critic of any offer allowing the Rays to leave Tropicana Field before 2028.

Kriseman didn't hide his preference for Wheeler-Brown, taking the unusual step of a mayor getting involved in a council race when he endorsed her on Monday.

"This will be our best council yet," Kriseman tweeted Tuesday night, congratulating Wheeler-Brown and Ed Montanari, who ran without opposition to take the seat held by Bill Dudley, who, like Wengay Newton, was forced out by term limits.

Rays officials declined to comment.

Many voters Tuesday shrugged when asked about their role in deciding the team's fate in the region.

"People have the idea the Rays are our team," said Joyce Fitzgerald, 66, after casting her ballot at the St. Petersburg Woman's Club on Snell Isle. "They're not. They belong to the owner. What do they really bring to our community? Nothing but a lot of our tax dollars going into their coffers, and it's time people wise up."

Others said the Rays motivated them to vote.

"The council needs to move forward and needs to let the Rays find a place for themselves," said Roger Plata, 65, after voting at the Walter Fuller Recreation Center in west St. Petersburg. Plata said he's a Rays fan who wants them to stay in the Tampa Bay region.

The issue divided council members and Kriseman. Opponents of previous deals with the Rays, like Kornell and Bill Dudley, endorsed Newton.

Supporters of a deal with the Rays, like council members Karl Nurse and Darden Rice, supported Wheeler-Brown.

"Lisa's victory symbolizes progress," Rice said. "It means the city has someone elected who is committed to policies and actions that will help fix the south side."

In his last-minute endorsement, Kriseman said a pro-Newton mailer tweaked a photo to darken Wheeler-Brown's skin tone and called it a hate-inspired tactic.

It was the latest in a string of attacks and miscues by both campaigns. Wheeler-Brown, 47, admitted spending $500 of campaign funds on dental surgery and mischaracterizing the expense as office rental in a campaign finance report.

Newton, 49, a retired firefighter and union official, wouldn't answer questions about the source of income involved in IRS liens totaling $32,000.

A late October attack by the Newton camp suggesting that Wheeler-Brown illegally profited from a foundation she tried to create in honor of her murdered son, Cabretti, was based on sketchy evidence and quickly dropped. But not before Wheeler-Brown blistered a silent Newton before a packed room at an NAACP candidate forum for indulging in dirty politics.

The final days got even worse with rival mailers linking Newton's tax troubles with possible "shift swaps" at the fire department and the dredging up of Wheeler-Brown's petty criminal past.

Asked Tuesday night if he would do anything differently, given the negative nature of the campaign, Newton replied, "No."

Wheeler-Brown credited her victory Tuesday to an electorate "ready for something different." She said she's eager to get to work to improve public safety and education, create jobs and expand affordable housing.

"The same things I've campaigned on since Jan. 5," she said.

Montanari, 57, an airline pilot and longtime civic activist, didn't face a challenger in District 3, which covers Snell Isle and many other northern waterfront neighborhoods.

All four of the ballot measures passed. They were mainly technical, and none were controversial. The council now has the power to impose restrictions on submerged city land east of North Shore Park without holding a voter referendum. Another measure clarifies how the eight council districts are drawn, favoring compact districts with borders that follow streets, railroad tracks and other natural boundaries.

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