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St. Petersburg Council member will not seek another term

Mark Parker

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Councilmember John Muhammad (center) was appointed to the city council by a simple majority of his colleagues in October 2022. Photo: City of St. Petersburg.

City Councilmember John Muhammad has had a change of heart. In late December, he told the Catalyst that he fully intended to launch an election campaign long before St. Petersburg’s June 18 deadline.

Muhammad, appointed to fill former Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Bowman’s vacancy in October 2022, will not run for the District 7 seat in the November election. The announcement came in a community blog post, published and sent to the Catalyst at around 12:30 a.m. Saturday.

Muhammad wrote that he did not take the decision lightly. He expressed gratitude for the South St. Pete district’s support and encouragement and the opportunity to serve the area in a government role.

“However, upon reflection and careful consideration, I have come to the realization that my passion for serving the community can be better channeled as a private citizen,” Muhammad added. “I believe I can be a more effective champion and advocate for the issues that matter to me and our community from that position.”

Wengay Newton and Donald Bowens Jr. stand to gain the most from the incumbent’s early morning (or late night) announcement. The two are already campaigning for Muhammad’s seat.

The predominantly Black district encompasses a large swath of the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area. Muhammad is a longtime local activist and former Childs Park Neighborhood Association president.

His appointment to the dais was controversial. Wheeler-Bowman abruptly resigned after secretively moving out of the district, and Muhammad and Newton emerged from a pool of replacement candidates.

Residents sent 98 emails advocating for Muhammad and 49 opposing his candidacy. Many decried his support of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

“I deny any allegation that I am an anti-Semite or anti-LGBTQ,” Muhammad said at the time. “It is my hope that should I be appointed, the opportunity will present itself for us to continue to discuss these concerns.”

Those opportunities arose privately and publicly. In September 2023, Muhammad ardently expressed concerns with a city resolution to formally define antisemitism. He abruptly left the dais before the council voted on and passed the initiative.

Councilmember Richie Floyd introduced a resolution Thursday (Feb. 1) supporting “peace and security for all in Palestine and Israel.” He deferred the discussion to avoid overshadowing what might have been St. Petersburg’s last Black History Month flag-raising ceremony at City Hall; Muhammad was absent from the meeting.

Muhammad announced he would no longer seek a second term less than two days later. “To those who were hopeful that I would run, especially those who supported me during the appointment process with that understanding, I humbly beg your pardon,” Muhammad wrote.

“At the time of my appointment, I had every intention of running for the seat, and I deeply appreciate the confidence you placed in me,” he added. “After being blessed with the opportunity to serve, I have come to the conclusion that stepping back from the race will allow me to give my undivided attention to completing the work I started during my first term.”

From left: Council Chair Deborah Figgs-Sanders; Councilmember John Muhammad; Chris Steele, co-owner of Sid’s at the Catalyst; Jeff Copeland, co-owner of The Catalyst on the Deuces; Jason Bryant, co-owner of the Catalyst on the Deuces; and Esther Matthews, president of the NAACP St. Petersburg chapter at a ribbon-cutting ceremony July 3, 2023. Photo by Mark Parker.

“I understand and respect his decision to do what is best for himself, his family and his community,” Council Chair Deborah Figgs-Sanders said Saturday morning. “At the end of the day, it’s important for everyone to understand that the people sitting on the dais wanting to serve our community are just like everybody else.

“We’re people, too.”

Newton entered the District 7 race in October 2023. The former council member represented the area from 2008 to 2016 before serving in the Florida House of Representatives from 2016 until 2020.

Newton, no stranger to local politics, unsuccessfully campaigned for a Pinellas County Commission seat in 2020. He then finished fourth in the 2021 St. Petersburg mayoral race.

Bowens, a relative political unknown, is a St. Pete High School graduate. He attended N.C. State on a football scholarship and now works in health care administration.

Bowens is also a youth athletics coach and oversees his family’s nonprofit, the Melville Foundation. He formally launched his campaign in mid-January.

Muhammad pledged to assist whoever emerges in the race. “I remain steadfast in my commitment to being an asset to and a resource for whomever the voters choose as the District 7 representative,” he wrote.

“I want to assure you that my decision is not a reflection of a lack of commitment or dedication,” Muhammad said. “On the contrary, it stems from a sincere belief that my skills and efforts can be more impactful outside the realm of elected office.”

If Muhammad completes his term – there was no mention otherwise, and he was unavailable for comment as of press time – he would remain in office until Jan. 2, 2025.

 

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    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    February 7, 2024at11:04 pm

    I believe that this was a difficult decision for Brother John, but I understand. I wish him well in his future endeavors. He is a warrior.

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