ST. PETERSBURG — Wengay Newton has been counted out before.
Newton wasn’t supposed to win his first race for City Council in 2007. But he did, edging out an establishment-favored candidate. He beat the same candidate again in 2011 with pretty much the same forces aligned against him.
And he won two races, despite the opposition of Mayor Rick Kriseman, for state Representative in House District 70 before leaving Tallahassee to wage a losing campaign to replace Ken Welch on the County Commission in 2020.
At 57, Newton is now eyeing the biggest potential prize of his often-embattled political career: mayor of St. Petersburg. He would be the city’s first Black mayor if elected.
And, as anyone who has paid attention to St. Petersburg politics in recent years knows, Newton may not have the money or powerful endorsements of mayoral front-runners Welch and former council colleague Darden Rice, but it’s never a good idea to count him out.
Newton’s message? Experience and the ability to build relationships, including with Republicans, he said.
Newton often backed Gov. Ron DeSantis’s priorities, and he says he has relationships in Tallahassee that will benefit the Sunshine City.
“In my 12 years, I’ve been building bridges and relationships. I’ve got a proven track record of voting and demonstrating that. Not just saying it because it sounds good in the messaging. You can check my record. Google it,” Newton said recently in downtown St. Petersburg.
But some fellow Democrats disagree about Newton’s track record of collaboration.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson, whose district overlapped with Newton’s council and House seats, praised Newton’s perseverance and passion, but said coalition-building skills aren’t his strong suit.
“At times, I’ve found him difficult to work with,” said Rouson, who has yet to endorse in the mayor’s race. “I think anyone who knows Wengay knows that his passion sometimes overtakes his collaborative spirit.”
But Rouson said a key to Newton’s electoral success has been his appeal to ordinary voters, including his personal story. Newton grew up poor in the Midtown neighborhood, the sixth child out of eight to Susie Mae Wilson-Newton, a divorced domestic worker.
Newton credits city-sponsored after-school programs with keeping him busy and out of trouble.
What followed was a steady ascent up the career ladder at Xerox Corp. before switching to photography, a more time-flexible option once he entered politics.
His life can serve as inspiration for the city’s potential, he said.
“You go from a little poor Black boy that was selling Evening Independents in Williams Park for 10 cents to now being able to come back and offer my services to be mayor of this great city. And God is awesome,” Newton said.
His biggest priority as mayor will be to boost city spending on youth jobs and after-school programs, an issue also on the top of his list as council member. He said his advocacy for underprivileged youth eventually persuaded his seven council colleagues to vote for $275,000 in jobs and training aid in 2015.
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Charlie Gerdes served with Newton for years on City Council. Gerdes, who left after being termed out in 2019, praised Newton’s passion, especially for youth jobs, but said Newton’s political ends often got tangled up in his means.
“Unfortunately, he struggles with building consensus. And that’s the reason that he was on the one vote end of a lot of 7-1 votes,” said Gerdes, who has endorsed Welch.
Newton disputes that assessment, saying his across-the-aisle track record in Tallahassee proves he can be collaborative.
And he offers a promise of the kind of collaboration most council members on either side of the bay previously could only dream of: full participation in negotiating with the Tampa Bay Rays on a new ballpark deal.
If elected, Newton said, he wouldn’t pursue Kriseman’s strategy of leading the negotiations while ignoring or clashing with council member’s over public funding for the stadium, its location or other hot-button Rays issues.
Council must approve any deal anyway, he said. Why not involve the eight council members in making the deal?
“The people that do the voting were never at the table, which is always a problem, because you’re going to come out and then you’re going to try to sell it to them. They don’t want it,” Newton said.
So far, Newton trails Welch and Rice in fundraising, partly attributable to a minor health issue that delayed the start of his active campaign.
But he’s been outspent before and still come out on top.
Newton scoffs at the theory, popular among some political observers and opponents’ consultants, that Newton is really in the race to draw Black voters away from Welch.
He said his candidacy shouldn’t be seen through the prism of race, but of someone who has dedicated his to public service. And people shouldn’t forget his political connections, he said.
When the Midtown neighborhood needed a grocery store, then-mayor Rick Baker called former Gov. Jeb Bush. And, voila, Sweetbay arrived at the Tangerine Plaza, Newton recounted.
Since then, Sweetbay and Walmart have both pulled out of the shopping plaza. And Kriseman has a frosty relationship at best with DeSantis. Newton said Rice and Welch don’t have any better access.
He’ll have an inside track with DeSantis and the GOP legislature, Newton said.
“So you got to be able to call somebody. Ask yourself: all these people in the race? Who are they going to call? Ghostbusters?”
Other mayoral candidates include City Council member Robert Blackmon, restaurateur Pete Boland, former political operative and marketer Marcile Powers, University of South Florida political science student Michael Ingram, Torry Nelson and former congressional write-in candidate Michael Levinson.
The primary election is Aug. 24. If no candidate earns more than 50 percent of the votes, the top two candidates will face off in the Nov. 2 general election.
The new mayor will be sworn in Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022 and will serve a four-year term.
The Tampa Bay Times and Spectrum Bay News 9 are hosting a mayoral debate Tuesday, June 22 at noon. Watch it live at tampabay.com/politics and at baynews9.com/watch. It will replay on Bay News 9 at 7 p.m. This is the sixth in a series of profiles on the candidates.
Robert Blackmon: St. Petersburg mayoral run about ideas, not personalities
Michael Ingram: Could this 20-year-old be St. Petersburg’s next mayor?
Wengay Newton: Newton is passionate, persistent, combative
Marcile Powers: With an open heart, Powers runs for St. Petersburg mayor