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More than half of St. Petersburg's council candidates have been accused of crimes. One spent 10 years in prison.

From left to right: District 1 candidates Robert Blackmon and John Hornbeck, and District 7 candidates Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, Eritha Cainion and Chico Cromartie have been accused of crimes in the past. They are among the eight St. Petersburg City Council candidates who have at one point faced charges.
From left to right: District 1 candidates Robert Blackmon and John Hornbeck, and District 7 candidates Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, Eritha Cainion and Chico Cromartie have been accused of crimes in the past. They are among the eight St. Petersburg City Council candidates who have at one point faced charges.
Published Aug. 8, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Of the 14 candidates running for City Council this year, more than half have been accused of committing crimes.

The accusations and outcomes run the gamut: most were misdemeanors, some of which were not prosecuted, while other candidates didn't contest the charges or pleaded guilty. One candidate was convicted of felony charges and spent a decade in prison.

It's part of a trend political professor Seth Masket said is growing: candidates willing to run or stay in races despite an unsavory element of their past or a scandalous development that might have forced a previous generation of candidates to the sidelines. He referenced Bill Clinton, Donald Trump and U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore from Alabama, all of whom stayed in despite scandal.

And it turns out voters can be forgiving.

"What I do think we're seeing is more politicians willing to test this," said Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. "I think we're finding that voters are far more tolerant of this sort of thing than either they used to be or than we originally thought."

In the race for District 7, which is south and west of downtown adjacent to Gulfport, three of the four candidates have been accused of crimes in the past.

Chico Cromartie, 47, who is challenging incumbent Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, has the only felony charges, according to state records and arrests reported by candidates to the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. He was found guilty of armed robbery following a 1990 arrest, serving eight years in state prison, the records show. He was arrested again in 2003 and found guilty on drug charges, serving another three years in prison.

Cromartie, who registered to vote in January under Amendment 4, which grants former felons the right to vote, said the convictions shouldn't be disqualifying for voters. In fact, he said, his criminal history makes him a better leader.

"It demonstrates that I can hold myself accountable, I can lead this city in a way that is responsible and transparent and I have nothing to hide. I think what we face as a city is more dangerous than I ever was," Cromartie said. "When you face adversity as a leader, how are you going to handle it? Are you going to be able to handle it? Can you stand to be corrected? Can you lead when it's uncomfortable? My whole life demonstrates leadership."

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Eritha "Akile" Cainion, 22, also challenging Bowman, was accused in 2017 of disorderly conduct and resisting an officer, both misdemeanors. She was not formally charged.

"I think it's a non-issue," she said. "You want to talk about criminals, you want to talk about arrest records, but the black community is being occupied by police on a daily basis."

Wheeler-Bowman, 50, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor retail theft in 1990, Pinellas County court records show. In 1998, she was accused of passing a worthless check, another misdemeanor. Records show she pleaded guilty and judgment was withheld.

She said voters had the opportunity to weigh those charges when she ran for the seat in 2015.

"When the voters did find out, I think they appreciated the fact that I was up front about it," she said. "No one's perfect. And I think that since I was up front about it, they believed in me. They trusted me."

The fourth candidate in that race, Sarah Elizabeth Moore, 22, has not faced charges in Florida, state records show.

In District 1, where two candidates are vying to replace term-limited Charlie Gerdes in representing the Tyrone area, both candidates have been accused of crimes.

John Hornbeck, 34, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor marijuana possession following a 2003 arrest, state records show. Judgment of that charge was withheld.
Hornbeck said he stopped smoking marijuana after that incident and shared his experience with students at his church to discourage them from making the same decision.

Hornbeck's opponent, Robert Blackmon, 30, was accused of a hit and run accident in Leon County in 2009, a misdemeanor, court records show. That charge was reduced to a traffic infraction, according to the records.

"A minor traffic ticket when I was 19 years old has no impact on my ability to lead," he said.

Wheeler-Bowman said Amendment 4, which passed by a large margin in 2018, has likely changed how voters perceive candidates with criminal histories.

"If they have a right to vote, then they have a right to run for office," she said of those with felony convictions.

Masket said it's difficult to predict the effect Amendment 4 could have on how voters view criminal histories. Felons who have had their voting rights restored could be even harder on candidates with records.

He said how voters view charges can depend on the races and political persuasions of the voters and candidates. The well-documented disparities in how the justice system has historically treated people of color could come into play.

"Particularly if it's something like drug possession,'' Masket said. "If it's an African American candidate and they were convicted by a white jury, it wouldn't be too hard to imagine for white and black voters viewing that conviction completely differently."

Look at Marion Barry, the former mayor Washington D.C. who was convicted of crack possession, Masket said.

"To a lot of white voters in D.C., this seemed outrageous," he said. "Here's someone convicted of a serious crime and there's no way we can support him. And for a lot of the black voters in D.C., they saw this as an overzealous justice system."

Candidates in the other St. Petersburg City Council races have also faced charges.

Zachary Collins, 36, who is challenging incumbent Ed Montanari in District 3, which includes Shore Acres and Snell Isle, was arrested in 2008 on a charge of driving under the influence. He did not contest the charges and was found guilty.

He said he didn't think the conviction is disqualifying.

"I think the state has overwhelmingly shown that they are willing to give second chances," he said.

In the race for the District 5 seat, which represents Pinellas Point and Lakewood Estates and is being vacated by term-limited Steve Kornell, Beth Connor, 54, was arrested twice, state records show. She was accused of disorderly intoxication in 1983 by Melbourne police and petty theft in 1994 by Treasure Island police. Both charges were misdemeanors, and Connor was not prosecuted in either case, records show.

Shortly after filing to run for the seat in March, Connor gave an interview to Florida Politics regarding her arrests.

"I addressed this months ago because I knew it was important to be honest with the voters right from the start," she told the Tampa Bay Times last week.

RELATED STORY: St. Petersburg's District 5 City Council race off and running with candidate forum

Phil Garrett, 54, who is also running for District 5, said he was once taken into a police station in New York City, where he previously lived. He said it was for "public something" and said he was not convicted. Records were not available.

"I don't really want to get into it, but I was racially profiled," said Garrett, who is black. "I am not a criminal."

RELATED STORY: St. Pete's District 5 race has five candidates with five points of view.

Times Senior Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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