[Updated with response from Pinellas Realtors Organization.]
CJ Czaia, a Manatee County-based personal injury attorney running for the Democratic nomination in House District 70, paid $1,000 last month to St. Petersburg community activist Theresa “Mama Tee” Lassiter for political consulting work.
Lassiter is a well-known and somewhat controversial community activist in South St. Petersburg.
“She had a one-time payment to help us consult with St. Petersburg and so forth,” Czaia said, adding that she continues to assist in advising his campaign. “I didn’t have an inside St. Pete person.”
Lassiter has been known to employ homophobic remarks in the past, and somewhat infamously made an issue of now St. Petersburg City Councilmember Darden Rice’s sexual orientation back at a candidate’s forum in 2005.
Meanwhile, Czaia remains angry at the fact that one of his opponents in the HD 70 race, former St. Petersburg City Councilman Wengay Newton, has earned the lion’s share of endorsements in the race, including from the Florida Professional Firefighters, where his brother Will serves as a top ranked official.
“I think they’re failing their fiduciary duty to their membership to do a good faith effort to review all the candidates before they make their endorsements,” said Czaia, who was only getting warmed up.
In an interview, Czaia attacked the process of how such endorsements were offered up: “Wengay got all his endorsements before I was even a candidate.”
Stonewall Democrats have endorsed Czaia.
“It’s like the fix is in,” Czaia maintains. “There’s a conflict. I’m talking about the lack of clarity to the Realtors association, to the firefighters, how good, how ethical of an endorsement is that?
The Pinellas Realtor Organization (PRO) “wholly denies the implied accusation by Mr. Czaia, and we are offended that he would call into question the ethics of our association and its members,” spokesperson Joe Farrell wrote to FloridaPolitics.com in an email.
“We screened the HD 70 race on May 24. On May 3 all filed candidates were invited to the screening – Cori Fournier, Dan Fiorini and Wengay Newton,” Farrell said. “Mr. Czaia was not a candidate at the time and had not intimated that he wanted to be a candidate. In a perfect world, we would screen all races after qualifying, but we don’t have that luxury since absentee ballots go out six weeks after qualifying.
“We had 10 races to screen,” Farrell continued, “and unlike Mr. Czaia, we didn’t have the luxury to procrastinate. I hope my explanation of the process brings more clarity to Mr. Czaia. Perhaps he can stop disparaging the transparent efforts of our association. Wengay Newton has a strong history supporting homeowners in the district by advocating for lower millage rates, fighting to retain private property rights, and supporting economic issues like Greenlight Pinellas.
“Maybe Mr. Czaia can explain how he will live up to that kind of representation instead of attacking an organization he had made no effort at all to contact.”
“Yeah my brother’s in the union, but that didn’t get me all of these endorsements,” Newton responded to the charge that the firefighter’s union endorsement was tainted. “You’ve got to go sit through these things. Also, eight years of governance might have something to do with it, I don’t know,” he added, talking about his two terms on the St. Petersburg City Council.
St. Pete business owner Florini is the other Democrat running in the Aug. 30 primary. The winner faces Fournier, a Republican, in November. HD 70 encompasses parts of Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties.