TAMPA — In June 2005, the Hillsborough County Commission voted 5-1 to ban sponsorship of anything that promotes gay pride.
Six months later, a 35-year-old gay financial planner named Kevin Beckner walked into a meeting of the newly formed gay Democratic Party caucus and asked what he could do to help.
Now, his name can be seen on yard signs all over the county, asking voters to let him replace Republican Brian Blair on the County Commission.
"I could no longer stand by the wayside and see our community falling apart and see our government focusing on the issues that were tearing apart our community and not bringing us together," Beckner said of his decision to run for office. "When you tear apart cultures, when you discriminate against a certain culture, it's not just that culture that's affected, it's the entire community."
Beckner says the gay pride issue is just one of many that prompted him to put his name on the ballot.
He also wants the opportunity to advocate for light rail, responsible growth and affordable housing.
But Beckner faces a tough battle, making his run as an openly gay candidate in a historically conservative county.
And his race against Blair comes at a time when Florida voters will consider a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, a measure likely to attract conservative voters to the polls.
Florida is already one of only two states in the country that specifically prohibits gay couples from adopting children.
It's one of only a handful of states that has never had an openly gay person in the state Legislature.
"Florida has a fairly large gay population, but they don't have the level of representation in politics that other states do," said Denis Dison, a spokesman for the Victory Fund, a national political action committee whose mission is to get openly gay people elected to public office.
The Victory Fund is endorsing more than 100 candidates this year, including Beckner, one of three Florida candidates backed by the group.
"We don't endorse all gay people running for office," Dison said. They need to show they understand what it takes to run and win.
Beckner, who participated in a candidate training program affiliated with the Victory Fund, did that, Dison said.
The group contributed $500 in in-kind services to Beckner's primary run. Those services included sending an e-mail to its supporters, letting them know about Beckner, who has received multiple contributions from people all across the country connected to the Victory Fund.
Still, Beckner's campaign manager, Mitch Kates, questions why Beckner's sexual orientation should be discussed at all.
"We don't talk about it. It doesn't come up in house parties. It doesn't come up in forums. People are focused on pocketbook issues," he said. "The only people who are talking about (it) are the media."
Blair said he doesn't plan to bring up sexual orientation in his campaign.
"I'm here to run on the issues," he said, describing himself as a tax cutter who supports small government.
The contest between the two is by far the most competitive of the three County Commission races — Republicans Ken Hagan and Al Higginbotham are also up for re-election but against little-known opponents — on the ballot in November.
Blair has attracted attention by going out front on some flashpoint issues.
He alarmed environmental groups by supporting looser restrictions on wetlands protection, and sent an e-mail in April urging recipients to protest a student-led "Day of Silence" to demonstrate against bullying of gays.
And only the Blair-Beckner race pits a Republican against a Democrat.
Democratic candidates throughout the country are hoping excitement about Barack Obama will translate into "down-ballot" support.
Given what some perceive as Blair's vulnerability, political observers question whether Beckner made a strategic mistake by being open about his sexual orientation.
"It probably would have been easier if he had not admitted he's gay," said Democratic political consultant Vic DiMaio. "There is a lot of prejudice out there."
He notes that there are local officeholders who many people know are gay, but simply refuse to discuss it.
"They do a good job, and people like them and they keep that in the background," DiMaio said.
Republican political consultant April Schiff agrees.
"I would always advise someone in that position that it is not a campaign issue. It is a personal issue. Personal issues have no place in campaigns," she said.
Offering the information to voters invites a reaction, and it's unlikely to be positive in a conservative county, she said.
"He's a very impressive, strong candidate, and there was no reason for him to give himself a liability," she said.
Beckner says he doesn't want to be known as the "gay candidate." More important, he says, is his background as a financial planner, which be thinks makes him more qualified than Blair, a former professional wrestler and fitness club owner, to monitor the county budget.
But his decision to reveal his sexual orientation says something about his character, he said.
"If I can't be open and honest about myself and who I am and it's not a significant part of my campaign," he said, "then what else am I not being open and honest about?"
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.