LARGO — There are three pictures of Largo City Commission candidate Michael Smith on the campaign advertisement he has mailed out across the city: one of Smith by himself, one with Smith and a group of firefighters, and one of Smith with his arm around a woman, who in turn is holding a child.
Smith, 30, is gay. The woman is a friend, and the child is hers. He said he included the picture to show that he "cares about families." Nothing on his mailer indicates he is a homosexual, though, and to Commissioner Mary Gray Black — Smith's opponent in the Seat 1 race — that's misleading.
Black took the opportunity to tell the crowd as much at the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday, where both candidates appeared.
"I feel that my opponent has been very deceptive in his presentation of himself to you," Black told the crowd of about 50, which included Largo business owners, city officials and a few students from local schools.
"I'm going to challenge my opponent to be truthful to you, to give you all of his endorsements, to give you his background and what he truly believes," said Black, 72, who has held office since 2005 and in parts of every decade since the 1970s. Her own mailer identifies her as a Christian, married to Bruce J. Black for 48 years, with two children and four grandchildren.
The chamber luncheon, held at the Palms of Largo, is the only scheduled public speaking event featuring both candidates in the Seat 1 race. Election Day is Nov. 8. Each candidate had a few minutes to speak to the audience, and Smith quickly replied to Black's accusation of deception.
"I think what she is referring to is that I happen to be gay. I'm not running as a gay commissioner, I just happen to be gay," said Smith, a senior library assistant at the Pinellas Park Public Library.
"I am not going to be up there pushing this agenda," said Smith, who added that he had campaigned for a year and this was the first time his sexuality had come up. "I think people are more concerned about property taxes and the economy."
When the event ended, former chamber chairman Keith Bailey approached Black to express his anger at her. Bailey felt that Black, a longtime friend he has voted for in the past, was trying to incite homophobia among Largo voters.
"It has to do with transparency, the truth and not being misleading," Black told Bailey. "If you're a drunkard, that's your lifestyle … He can be whatever he wants to be."
"Why did you ask us to look up his endorsements and campaign donations?" Bailey asked. Not satisfied with Black's answer, he interrupted with his own.
"It's the Stonewall group, isn't it? That's what you want us to see," Bailey said.
Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas County is a political organization "devoted to advancing equal rights for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity," according to its website. The Pinellas Stonewall PAC gave Smith $500 in September, according to his campaign filings.
Bailey, 52, said after the meeting that he had always voted for Black, or abstained from voting in races where he knew and liked her opponent. That will change this year, though.
"I just thought it was inappropriate, and people need to take a stand against homophobia," he said. "I'm shifting my support to Michael Smith."
The accusations of deception and homophobia provided a bit of excitement to a luncheon that also included several awards for local students, a raffle for a Palms of Largo gift basket, and a lengthy presentation by Community Development Director Carol Stricklin on the city's new business-friendly initiatives.
"It was exciting," said Teresa Cozzi, an assistant loan officer who attended to see her son, Largo High School student Corey Cozzi, get an award.
Cozzi said she plans to vote in November but hasn't decided which candidate she will support. She thought Black made an issue of Smith's sexuality, though, and that bothered her.
"I kind of didn't like her bringing out the gay thing," Cozzi said. "To me, that's not what it's about. To me, it's about what they're going to do for the community."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org.