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'Outsider' wins seen as Baker repudiation

By CRISTINA SILVA, Times Staff Writer
Published November 11, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG - In the weeks leading up to election day, the chances of either Wengay Newton or Bill Dudley getting elected to the City Council seemed slim.

Mayor Rick Baker had endorsed their opponents. He and other City Hall insiders were campaigning heavily against Dudley and Newton. The St. Petersburg Times' editorial board chose not to endorse them.

But last week, voters put their faith in the wrestling coach and the streetwise activist.

Their win Tuesday stunned certain political circles and set off chatter that the election represented a mandate against Baker's leadership.

Privately, Dudley and Newton couldn't help but laugh at those who had underestimated them.

They met years before either had political aspirations.

Newton was a sophomore at Northeast High School.

"I saw this handsome guy," Dudley remembered, "and I said, 'You look like a wrestler.' "

Dudley was a mentor, someone who encouraged Newton and the other athletes to work hard.

Around the time he was 16, Newton became a dad. He got a night job and struggled to keep his grades up.

"It kept me out of trouble," Newton said. "A lot of kids I ran with, some of them are dead, some of them are in prison, some of them are not doing too well."

When Newton graduated, the men parted ways.

In 2003, Dudley challenged Bill Foster, another one of his former players at Northeast High, for a council seat and lost.

He kept his election signs in his garage for four years, waiting for a second chance. He became president of the Snell Isle Property Owners Association. In 2006, Dudley retired from teaching.

About the same time, Newton was becoming more well known. He worked his way up the ladder at Xerox Corp. and became a senior printing systems engineer. He was elected president of the Westminster Heights Neighborhood Association. He stood up to developers at community meetings. He was troubled that the people in City Hall seemed to ignore his concerns. Friends told him he should run for the council.

In 2006, Newton enrolled in a leadership course offered by the Council of Neighborhood Associations. Dudley, who had taken the course a year earlier, just happened to be appointed as Newton's mentor.

As they got reacquainted, neither could imagine that a year later they would be standing up to the mayor in the fight of their political lives.

From the beginning of the campaign, they were dubbed outsiders.

Both men were perplexed by the label.

"I'm more of an insider than they could ever be," Dudley said. "I know the community."

In October, Baker began taking their opponents, Ed Montanari and Gershom Faulkner, around to area churches to campaign.

Newton and Dudley began to feel as if they had a new opponent: Baker.

But residents expressed a revived interest in their campaigns. They wanted a candidate with an independent voice, Newton said.

"It was the kiss of death," Newton said of his opponent's decision to campaign with Baker. "We were the candidates who could not be controlled."

Already, Newton and Dudley are rubbing the mayor the wrong way.

They said City Hall let go of too many street workers and not enough managers in recent budget cuts. They question whether the city needs three deputy mayors. City Hall hasn't done enough to stop crime, they said.

"That man did a lot of good things," Newton said of Baker. "But people who look like me are dying out there."

Baker sees things differently.

The neighborhood and Midtown programs, led by Deputy Mayors Goliath Davis and David Metz, are successful, Baker said in an interview Friday.

And the city did not target low-ranking employees in the budget cuts, Baker said.

"I completely disagree with that," he said. "I disagree with a lot of what they said during the campaign. We have eliminated 130 positions since I have been in office, 70 have been managerial."

But despite their disagreements, Baker hopes he and the newest council members can work together to accomplish shared goals.

"There is a difference between campaigning and governing," Baker said. "When you get elected, the appropriate thing to do is to find common ground and work together."

Dudley and Newton agree that it is time to move forward. But the former outsiders can't help but take one last shot at the people who tried to stand in their way.

"We are part of the establishment," Dudley said. "Just not their establishment."

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

[Last modified November 10, 2007, 21:49:38]


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