St. Petersburg has made great strides in recent years, with a vibrant downtown, property values rising again and a more progressive mayor and City Council. Yet there remain big challenges, from resolving the stalemate over the Tampa Bay Rays stadium search to homelessness, from affordable housing to job creation. Five City Council candidates are running in the Aug. 25 primary to succeed the term-limited Wengay Newton in District 7, which includes much of Midtown and some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Only District 7 voters can cast ballots in the primary, and the top two finishers will advance to the November citywide election.
Lisa Wheeler-Brown's personal tragedy shows how residents and police can work together to make neighborhoods safer. After Brown's son was murdered in 2008 and the trail ran cold, she scoured the community for tips, identified the killer and helped authorities send him to prison. She has won local and national recognition for battling an "anti-snitch'' ethic that sometimes hinders law enforcement. The entire city could benefit from Wheeler-Brown's energy and commonsense abilities.
Wheeler-Brown, 46, is a medical billing specialist who graduated from Boca Ciega High School, served two years in the U.S. Army and has worked in corporate training and customer relations. Her employer praises her as a self-starter who tackles difficult tasks and who often acts as the office conciliator during interpersonal disputes — a quality that could benefit the council. She is a board member of the Melrose Elementary School PTA and is immediate past president of St. Petersburg's Council of Neighborhood Associations, which makes her familiar with issues throughout the city.
All five candidates express general concern about public safety, education, jobs and affordable housing. Wheeler-Brown stands out as a person who understands the community at the ground level and has worked directly to improve it. She also is the clearest supporter of Mayor Rick Kriseman's effort to allow the Rays to look at stadium sites in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, which would unlock Tropicana Field's enormous potential for redevelopment with or without a new stadium.
Retired St. Petersburg firefighter Winthrop "Will" Newton, 49, was a longtime union leader and still works part time for the firefighters union. He was not helpful in resolving the city's dispute with Pinellas County over emergency medical services, and it is not clear he could represent broader interests than the union's as a council member. He opposes Kriseman's proposed deal with the Rays and would be the least likely candidate to help break the stalemate.
Elvert Lewis Stephens, 26, is a behavior specialist and PTA president at Campbell Park Elementary School who advocates passionately for young people. He has leadership potential, and broader experience in public service could make him a more well-rounded candidate in the future.
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Retired bank executive Aaron Sharpe, 46, served as co-president of his neighborhood association and on the city's code enforcement board. His neighborhood was only recently included in District 7 when the boundary lines were adjusted, and he does not have the same long connections to the district's neighborhoods as the other candidates.
Retired attorney and business consultant Sheila Scott Griffin, 57, speaks with eloquence about improving the community, but her failure to pay client restitution after two suspensions from the Florida Bar is a troubling shortcoming.
For St. Petersburg City Council District 7, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Lisa Wheeler-Brown.