The four-way race to replace Ken Welch on the Pinellas County Commission is likely between just two candidates — Rep. Wengay Newton and School Board member Rene Flowers.
The two Democrats will appear in Tuesday’s Democratic primary along with former Rep. Frank Peterman Jr.
The winner will face no-party-affiliated Maria Scruggs and write-in candidate Anthony Hart in the November general election.
Welch, who is not seeking reelection, plans to run for St. Petersburg Mayor in 2021.
Flowers and Newton have dominated in campaign cash, with Newton bringing in nearly $80,000 and Flowers nearly $64,000. The two have been the most forward-facing candidates in the race.
The race pits a progressive Democrat in Flowers against a more moderate Newton who, at times, has sided with Republicans on issues surrounding school choice and transportation.
Newton supports vouchers and charter schools, issues not likely to come up in his capacity as would-be County Commissioner. He also voted in favor of a controversial highway project, one most Democrats rejected as an environmental no-no.
Both candidates formerly served on the St. Petersburg City Council. Newton served part of his tenure under St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration. Kriseman endorsed Flowers. Newton supported Kriseman’s 2017 Republican challenger, former Mayor Rick Baker.
While Newton leads in cash, Flowers has been collecting support from a bevy of local Democrats and various organizations including one of Newton’s former colleagues, former City Council member Steve Kornell, St. Pete City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, who replaced Newton, Rep. Jennifer Webb and Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, among others. She also landed endorsements from the SEIU and Equality Florida Action PAC.
Still, Newton has cleaned up with endorsements, including from the Tampa Bay Times, St. Pete Association of Firefighters, Pinellas Realtor Organization, St. Pete Police Benevolent Association and 33 members of the legislature, among others.
The race is likely to be close. Both candidates have strong local name recognition. Either one would enter the general election with a strong advantage.
Write-in candidates are historically non-starters, and Scruggs, the former president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, faces a funding deficit.
Flowers would enter the general election push with about $18,000 on hand; Newton $29,000. Scruggs has less than $5,000 on hand. While Scruggs is an NPA, her policies align more with progressive voters.
Still, she’s a fierce competitor, staking her campaign on boosting long-struggling minority communities in a district that includes some of the county’s most impoverished areas and a high density of Black voters.