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Friday, Jul 11, 2014

Election could give St. Pete three openly gay council members

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ST. PETERSBURG - It's been only four years since St. Petersburg voters elected Steve Kornell as the city's first openly gay City Council member.

And this is the first year that every member of the City Council and the mayor have put their names to a proclamation in support of this week's gay pride festival.

Perhaps the biggest signal, though, of the shift in St. Petersburg's attitude toward sexual orientation comes from a debate that isn't taking place.

This November, openly gay residents could occupy three of the eight seats on the St. Petersburg City Council, if civic activist Darden Rice and nonprofit leader Amy Foster are elected.

Even in an era of increased acceptance, their elections would still constitute something of a high water mark for the progress of LGBT representation in political office, according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization that helps lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender candidates.

Yet, in the week that the city hosts Florida's biggest gay pride festival, that possibility has raised barely a blip on the radar and is a nonissue on the campaign trail, candidates say.

"I think the public has come a long way even in just the last five years," said Foster, one of four candidates running for the District 8 seat. "Just as in any other job interview, those types of things don't come up in discussions but what kind of job are you going to do, which is what voters care about."

Indeed, some people see even talking about the issue as a backward step, drawing attention to a candidate's sexuality when voters are more interested in their stances on the city's pier or the Rays stadium debate, said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida.

"I don't think people are looking at the race and seeing it through that lens," Smith said. "It's progress in the simple fact that people will now evaluate candidates on where they stand on the issues and how hard they work."

That dynamic makes St. Petersburg something of an exception, according to Victory Fund.

Of the country's approximately 500,000 elected positions at the city, county, state and federal levels, the Victory Fund estimates that only about 550 of them are held by people who are openly gay - meaning the LGBT community is still underrepresented.

"The the fact that only 550 of those are occupied by people who are out speaks to the barrier that is still there," said Dennis Dison, a spokesman for the Victory Fund. "This is still an issue in large swaths of America; we're definitely not done yet."

While having three gay City Council members would be unusual, it would not be unprecedented.

With a gay mayor, vice mayor and city commissioner on its five-member city commission, the City of Wilton Manors in Broward County became in 2000 only the second city in the United States to have a gay majority on its governing board, according to the city's website. The first was West Hollywood, Calif., back in 1988.

One reason that sexual orientation is a nonissue in St. Petersburg may be that the city has already adopted several gay-rights policies that other communities, including Hillsborough County, have rejected.

The city began offering benefits such as health insurance coverage for same-sex partners of police and firefighters in 2011 and extended that right to all city employees a year later. That same year, city leaders also approved a domestic partnership registry to give unmarried straight and gay couples some of the same rights enjoyed by married couples, including the ability to make health care and funeral decisions for each other.

With his election to the City Council in 2009, Kornell became the first openly gay elected official in Pinellas County. He said his sexual orientation was commented on during the campaign but was not a major issue then and has not been since.

"Ninety-nine percent of the issues really have nothing to do with being gay," he said. "I want the smartest most capable people elected."

Kevin Beckner, elected to the Hillsborough County Commission in 2008, is the only openly gay elected official in Hillsborough.

Both Rice and Foster said they have much more to offer as council members than just as gay candidates and that their focus, if elected, will be on citywide issues, including job creation and public safety.

Rice is a former president of the League of Women voters who serves on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. Foster is the national president of a nonprofit group that encourages girls to study science, technology, engineering and math.

The lack of women and minorities on the council is probably of greater concern than the level of representation of the LGBT community, they said. The council is made up of six white men, Wengay Newton, who is black, and term-limited Leslie Curran.

"We have one woman on a council of eight, and she's term limited," Foster said. "Let's have some other kinds of diversity on the council."

There has been talk in the LGBT community about Foster and Rice's chances but more talk about who is the best candidate, which is the way it should be, said Eric Skains, executive director of St. Pete Pride, which organized today's festival.

"In the LGBT community, they're quite aware of it and hopeful that it happens, but they're more hopeful that the best person gets into office," he said. "It boils down to what are they able to do for the city?"

codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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