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  1. Florida Politics

Wengay Newton, St. Petersburg City Council's longtime dissenter, takes aim at Tallahassee

ST. PETERSBURG –– When Wengay Newton first ran for St. Petersburg City Council in 2007, politicos and elected leaders dismissed his chances and endorsed his opponent. Newton campaigned relentlessly as an outsider against City Hall's fiscal policies.

But the former neighborhood leader won by brandishing himself as a political outsider — and continues to win political office.

The outsider's latest victory: He handily won the Aug. 31 Democratic primary for state House District 70.

It is a win that is likely to propel Newton to the Florida Legislature come November.

His opponent, 27-year-old Republican Cori Fournier, has barely raised four-figures while Newton raised and spent five-figures. Fournier is also competing in a district that touches parts of Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas and Sarasota counties and where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 3-1.

Newton boasts that even after eight years on City Council, he still isn't a part of the political elite. He says he can connect with voters by virtue of his humble upbringing: he was the third youngest of eight children raised by a single, divorced mother.

He said his 8-year fight to improve his impoverished St. Petersburg district will continue in Tallhassee. Newton, 53, said he will focus on increasing education funding, expanding Medicaid, reforming juvenile justice and improving access to affordable housing.

"None of this stuff is new to me," Newton said. "This is a move to get more partnerships and programs to help the young people. They need a chance."

Obversors say that the same traits that Newton displayed on City Council could help him in Tallahassee.

Whenever the eight-member council approved new laws, he was often the lone dissenter. If an initiative didn't benefit his district, he objected — repeatedly. His willingness to be outspoken could help him whenever he challenges Republicans in the legislature.

That's because Newton has a knack for angling his way in front of reporters and cameras to opine about the issues of the day.

"If you have 120 people in a room, you need people with differing opinions," Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, a former state lawmaker, said about serving in Tallahassee. "Wengay has shown he is persistent to fight for what he believes in."

Some of Newton's critics on the council, however, considered him a roadblock, impending whatever they were trying to accomplish. But Newton believes he was actually a consensus builder.

Looking back on his council days, Newton believes some colleagues let their personal dislike of him get in the way of improving his district. He grew accustomed to his fellow council members failing to move his legislation forward.

Yet he's eager to work with state lawmakers.

"I can work with anybody," he said. "I want to sit down with people to get some good ideas."

Still, Tallahassee isn't St. Petersburg: the impact one can make as one out of eight council members is far different from the impact one can make among 120 state representatives.

"Nobody in Tallahassee cares what you used to do on a previous legislative body," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, who is leaving his old District 70 seat to run for Senate District 19. "It's a whole different experience."

Legislative veterans such as Justice and Rouson offered their own advice for Newton: he should develop relationships with staffers and other power brokers to advance his agenda.

Rouson, who pledged to help Newton, said he encouraged Newton to arrive a day early and stay a day longer each week so he could hold individual meetings with staffers. Rouson cautioned that Newton "will want to score touchdowns but will learn to settle on field goals, adding: "Those are still victories."

That's because there isn't much a Democrat can do in a Republican-controlled legislature.

But Newton did win a few battles while on City Council.

In 2007, he won office by some 600 votes. Four years later, city leaders again supported his challenger. Newton again won, taking 66 percent of the vote to retain his seat. His appeal broached racial lines. He dominated African-American precincts and won 63 percent of the vote in majority white precincts.

While his former council colleagues rejected his proposals, three of them –– Jim Kennedy, Darden Rice and Bill Dudley –– endorsed him in the recent primary. And it didn't matter that St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman endorsed businessman Dan Fiorini –– Newton won 62 percent of the total vote in the four counties.

His biggest margin came in Pinellas County –– 72 percent of all 8,589 votes. He described the victory as voters "showing me lots of love."

"I'm 3-0 in campaigns," Newton said. "I'm dancing with the voters, not so much the politicians. We represent the people."

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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