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2020

Michele Rayner will replace Wengay Newton in HD 70 with a win over three Democrats in the open primary

Rayner led the campaign in fundraising and endorsements.

Civil rights attorney Michele Rayner will replace Rep. Wengay Newton in Florida House District 70, winning 35.05% of the vote in Pinellas and 30.94 % in Hillsborough, accruing 31.03% of the total vote spanning across areas in four counties.

No Republicans ran, which opened the primary to all voters regardless of party affiliation and decided the race ahead of the Nov. 3 General Election.

Rayner defeated Keisha Bell, Michelle Grimsley and Mark Oliver in the race. In a statement, Rayner said she was proud of her campaign, and looks forward to getting to work in the Florida House.  

“I’m proud because this win represents a new day,” Rayner said. “We’ve run a campaign focused on putting people over politics and that’s rooted in a commitment to working with and for residents until the change they seek is a reality. Tonight, we made history as the first woman to represent District 70 in the Florida House of Representatives, and the first openly-queer Black woman to hold political office in this state.”

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

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

In regard to her win, Equality Florida shared a response to Rayner becoming the first Black queer woman elected in Florida.

“Michele Rayner has just shattered another glass ceiling by becoming one of Florida’s first out Black queer women ever elected to any office in our state,” Equality Florida executive director Nadine Smith said in a news release. “Our donors rallied to support her and our volunteers sent tens of thousands of messages to voters in the closing days of the campaign. This is a victory to be celebrated by everyone who values equality and the voices of black women.”

Rayner is 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 was also by far the most successful fundraiser in the race, bringing in nearly $97,000 since entering the race in March.

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

While Rayner had an edge going into Tuesday’s election, the field was competitive.

Grimsley ran with Newton’s support. She served with Newton since July 2018 after the two met when she reached out to him through her church for community outreach.

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 also ran a strong grassroots campaign, hitting neighborhoods daily, literally running from door to door.

Though late in the race 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, came 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 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 Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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