Kevin Beckner was in kindergarten when he began addressing large audiences.
The crowds were imaginary, but that didn't crimp the blond-headed boy's flair for the dramatic.
"I can still see this little kid on the back porch saying 'Ladies and gentlemen,'" recalled Joyce Beckner, Kevin's mother. "Our neighbors would be on the porch listening. ... They'd be rolling on the ground laughing."
Flash ahead 30 years, and the back-porch orator was speaking to real crowds, stumping across Hillsborough County in an insurgent campaign for county commissioner. With his crew cut and Opie Taylor smile, Beckner won people over on the campaign trail.
A 37-year-old Democrat, Beckner beat Republican incumbent Brian Blair for the countywide seat by more than 40,000 votes. It was a stunning victory, the first over an incumbent commissioner in more than a decade. It was all the more remarkable because Beckner became the first openly gay commissioner.
Some local observers said Beckner ran a tougher, smarter campaign than Blair, employing 400 volunteers and raising nearly $200,000 for signs and direct-mail advertising.
But others thought Blair had turned off voters with controversial positions on social and environmental issues.
"Barack Obama won because he wasn't George W. Bush, and Kevin Beckner won because he was not Brian Blair," said Ed Turanchik, a former Hillsborough County commissioner.
People close to Beckner credited his ability to connect with voters on a personal level.
"He made himself available to the public, and I think people were hungry for that accessibility," said Mark Nash, Beckner's campaign field director.
Ginnie Carlson, one of Beckner's earliest campaign workers, said she was impressed on first meeting him, but expected that initial aura to fade with familiarity.
"Every cause and every hero has feet of clay, but he kept impressing me more and more," Carlson said. "He always did a lot of research, and he did listen to what other people were saying and cared what their viewpoints were."
Beckner grew up in Michigan City, Ind., a city of 32,000 about 60 miles east of Chicago. His father, Robert, was an electrician, and mother Joyce was a dietitian. Beckner said he enjoyed the typical small-town life, riding his bike, hiking in the woods and walking along the Lake Michigan shore.
But even as a youngster, Beckner showed organizational skills and attention to detail that would serve him well in his career as a financial adviser and politician.
In high school, he wrote a murder mystery for an English class and invited classmates to the house to act out the story. Joyce Beckner said her son talked a police officer into surrounding the house with yellow tape and even "investigating" the crime. Mom and Dad played parts in the story.
"Then, after it was over, he called one of the judges and he let him come down for a mock court trial," his mother said. "Kevin pretended to be that judge."
Beckner said he always enjoyed running his own businesses. He and his brother Rodney worked as disc jockeys for high school dances, then weddings. Beckner said he encouraged guests to get up and sing with him or do the hokeypokey and chicken dance.
"I always believed in interaction and getting people involved," he said. "That was so important in our campaign: getting people involved and getting them to take ownership."
The brothers continued the business while Beckner attended Indiana University Bloomington, incorporating karaoke into the act. Beckner also helped pay his way through college by working for the university police after attending the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy in 1990. In his spare time, he sang with The Singing Hoosiers, Indiana University's show choir.
"It was a balancing act," he said with a grin.
At age 22, Beckner decided to let others know he was gay. It was something he had always known growing up, but had finally accepted as he left college, he says.
"You come to a point in your life where you accept who you are, you love who you are, and that helps you accept other people the way they are," he said.
Beckner said his parents had a hard time when they first learned about his sexual orientation but now fully support their son and his partner of 10 years, Gil Sainz, who shares a home with Beckner in Citrus Park.
"Like any parents, when you're growing up and you imagine what your child is going to be, you have an expectation of them being married and having grandchildren," he said. "When that dream goes away, then the whole world is shattered. But then you rebuild, and that's what my parents have done over time."
After graduating from college in 1993, Beckner hired a financial adviser to draw up a 20-year life plan. He found the experience helpful and decided to pursue financial planning as a career.
"It was a natural transition to help people do what I was doing and planning for my life," he said.
In 1998, Beckner moved to Clearwater, returning to the state he remembered fondly from childhood vacations. A year later, he started his career as a financial planner with American Express Financial Corp.
Lance Becatti trained Beckner at American Express and later asked Beckner to join him as partner in the Tampa office of Ameriprise Financial Inc. Becatti said he was impressed with Beckner's work ethic and analytical skills. More importantly, Becatti said he knew he could trust Beck- ner.
"In the financial industries when you bring someone to your practice ... we are totally responsible for each other," Becatti said. "Everything he would do would directly affect my business. The trust had to be explicit and implicit."
Hat in the Ring
Despite his habit of forward-thinking, Beckner never contemplated a career in politics until he moved to Hillsborough County in 1999.
Beckner thought the county was growing haphazardly with no real plans for transportation and environmental protection. In his view, the commission wasted valuable time debating social issues such as gay rights and bikini bars while the county continually ranked at the bottom of favored destinations for young, upwardly mobile professionals.
"You just take a look around and you think the county's not headed in the right direction," he said. "If you want change, you've got to make it happen yourself; you can't wait for change to happen."
With help from Nash and his campaign chief, Mitch Kates, Beckner devised a campaign that blended old-fashioned shoe leather with newfangled Internet outreach. Starting 22 months before the election, he methodically crisscrossed the county, meeting with any group that would listen. If he couldn't attend an event, his green-shirted volunteers showed up.
At the same time, he used advertising on Facebook and other Internet venues to attract 400 volunteers and raise $192,000, most of it from small contributors.
Early on in the campaign, Beckner decided to talk openly about being gay. Rather than a detriment, he thought being honest about such a personal topic would win over voters hungry for transparency.
"If people find you can't talk about who you are, what other things would you try to cover up?" he said.
Beckner said he will try to juggle his work at Ameriprise with his job as a commissioner, which pays $92,000 a year.
After his victory, Beckner signaled he wanted to work with the other commissioners, regardless of their ideological stripe. He also would like to end the continual bickering between the county and Tampa.
"I can't do it overnight," he said. "But gradually, we can clearly better relationships and work together."