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  1. Florida Politics

Wheeler-Brown, Newton top St. Petersburg City Council primary, head to Nov. 3 showdown

ST. PETERSBURG — A paltry number of primary voters in District 7 picked Lisa Wheeler-Brown and Will Newton to advance to the general election, setting up a November City Council showdown that could determine the future home of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Of the 2,749 people who voted, which was 14.5 percent of those eligible, Wheeler-Brown won with 37.4 percent. Newton was close behind, trailing by 79 votes with 34.5 percent.

Sheila Scott Griffin got 17.7 percent, Aaron Sharpe got 6.7 percent and Lewis Stephens Jr. got 3.7 percent.

At Sylvia's Restaurant in Midtown, Newton celebrated Tuesday night with two dozen supporters, including council member Amy Foster and Democratic congressional candidate Eric Lynn.

"It's a new race altogether," said Newton, who was clearly happy but not ecstatic.

At Parker Financial Services, two blocks down from Sylvia's, the crowd was nearly double and more enthusiastic about Wheeler-Brown's victory.

"They had me as the underdog, but I'm Superwoman," said Wheeler-Brown, who celebrated with council members Karl Nurse, Darden Rice and, making a second appearance, Lynn.

The anemic voter turnout belied wider regional interest in the council race. Newton is the only candidate who won't commit to a vote allowing the Tampa Bay Rays to look in Pinellas County outside St. Petersburg or Hillsborough County.

Only the 19,114 registered voters in District 7 were eligible to cast ballots Tuesday. Newton and Wheeler-Brown will face off in a Nov. 3 race in which the entire city can vote, during which the Rays' future in Tampa Bay promises to dominate.

The interest in the Rays stalemate with the city, however, wasn't foremost on the minds of the voters in the district, which includes Midtown, Childs Park and other southern neighborhoods of the city.

In three candidate forums, far more time was spent on how to help improve the quality of life in the district. Affordable housing, jobs, opportunities for young people and improving often-dismal education at local schools were front and center on each candidate's agenda.

Overall, the race was a mostly polite affair with candidates often agreeing on the multitude of issues facing the district, which includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. That tone was upset only late in the campaign, when a flurry of mailers targeted Griffin and Wheeler-Brown.

Wheeler-Brown, who announced her run in January, raised the most cash with $33,032. Newton, who announced right before the June qualifying deadline, quickly closed the gap, raising $26,615.

The Rays and their executives didn't contribute to any candidate in the primary. When asked about the race, Rays spokeswoman Rafaela Amador declined to comment.

Since a deal agreed to by Mayor Rick Kriseman was defeated by the council last year, negotiations have ceased. Another attempt in May to revive the accord allowing the Rays to look at other sites also fizzled. What makes District 7 so pivotal is that it's the only race this year where Kriseman can pick up support.

Incoming council member Ed Montanari, who faced no opponent, is against the deal unless the terms change. He's replacing Bill Dudley, who voted no in December 2014.

The other two races involve heavily favored incumbents: Charlie Gerdes, who voted yes on the deal, and Steve Kornell, who voted no.

Newton and Wheeler-Brown must now appeal to a citywide electorate. Newton, 49, a former firefighter and union official, has stressed his negotiating skills. Wheeler-Brown, 47, ran on the strength of a moving personal story involving kick-starting a police investigation into the murder of her son.

Despite the low turnout, it was more than the last St. Petersburg primary with only one council race on the ballot. In 2011, Gerdes won the District 1 primary with a 3 percent election day turnout and 14.25 percent overall.

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

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