Michele Rayner heads into Tuesday election with major cash advantage in what could be a tight four-way race

HD 70 Candidates 2020
The race between Rayner, Michele Grimsley, Mark Oliver and Keisha Bell could be tight.

Tampa Bay voters will decide the next representative in Florida House District 70 this Tuesday.

Four Democrats are running to replace Rep. Wengay Newton, who is not seeking reelection to run for Pinellas County Commission.

No Republicans are running, opening the primary to all voters regardless of party affiliation.

The race will likely be tight with four viable candidates — Keisha Bell, Michelle Grimsley, Mark Oliver and Michele Rayner — on the ballot. HD 70 includes parts of Hillsborough, Manatee and Pinellas counties.

Rayner heads into the primary with the most momentum, raking in high-profile endorsements over the last several weeks.

Endorsements include the Tampa Bay Times, Pinellas Realtor Organization, the Florida Education Association, SEIU Florida, AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, Equality Florida, Ruth’s List and others.

She’s also a high-profile civil rights and social justice lawyer, a boost in a district with a high concentration of liberal and minority voters. She has tried both local and national high-profile cases in Pinellas County.

She was one of the lawyers who represented the McDonald’s employee attacked by a customer in south St. Pete. Video of the attack went viral after the employee fought back against her attacker, who was later arrested.

She also represented the family of Markeis McGlockton, a man gunned down in a Clearwater parking lot in 2018 whose case reignited debate about Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

She’s also by far the most successful fundraiser in the race, bringing in nearly $97,000 since entering the race in March.

By comparison, Oliver has raised more than $44,000, Bell just over $26,000 and Grimsley just shy of $20,000.

But money and endorsements don’t paint the whole story.

While she has raised the least money, Grimsley is running with Newton’s support. Grimsley has served with Newton since July 2018 after the two met when she reached out to him through her church for community outreach.

Backing from a departing incumbent is typically a major boost in open races. That could be the case in this race, but Newton has a mixed relationship with Democrats in the area, siding sometimes with conservatives on policy issues like school choice and transportation.

Oliver works with individuals with disabilities to train them in sports and physical fitness through the nonprofit organization he founded, Specially Fit. His work earned him an endorsement from the Florida Disability Caucus.

St. Petersburg City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman and the Pinellas Stonewall Democrats also endorsed Oliver.

He has also been running a strong grassroots campaign, hitting neighborhoods daily, literally running from door to door.

While Oliver has a wholesome story, his candidacy has not been without controversy. A district resident falsely accused Oliver of stealing mail as he was going door to door delivering campaign literature, but that accusation quickly blew up as supporters noted he was leaving mail, not taking it.

In another blemish, Oliver faced heat for not registering to vote until last year, a voting delay he attributes to long feeling his voice didn’t matter, the same way many of his would-be constituents might feel, particularly in minority communities.

Bell, meanwhile, may come to the ballot with name recognition in her corner. She ran against Newton in the 2018 primary, finishing second in the three-way race. Though she came in 13 points behind Newton in that race.

Janelle Irwin Taylor

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at [email protected].


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