Ask Andy Guyette about his most trying times as a city commissioner and of course he mentions Steve Stanton. ¶ "It was the hardest period of my life outside of my father's death," said Guyette, 50, who resigned last week to take a job in Huntsville, Ala.
Early last year, the news that Stanton planned to have a sex-change operation turned Largo City Hall into the center ring of a media circus.
Commissioners got thousands of e-mails. TV satellite trucks took over the parking lot. Hundreds of protesters packed City Commission meetings.
And in the end, Guyette voted to dismiss a city manager with a string of favorable evaluations.
Many said the vote was bigoted.
"It was bad enough having to make the decision," Guyette said. "The repercussions added to it."
In response, he said his decision was based on what he learned about Stanton's leadership, not who he was as a person.
But even before he faced the backlash, Guyette had to do something else.
First, he had to fire his friend.
• • •
For someone like Guyette — a son of the Midwest, with working-class roots and a lifetime of taking on evermore responsibility — it was not a decision to be made lightly.
One of six kids, Guyette grew up in Green Bay, Wis. His mom cooked in a restaurant and his dad was a mill worker. He joined the Air Force after high school and met his wife, Linda, at a Cocoa Beach base.
After leaving the Air Force, they moved here to be near his wife's family.
Guyette spent 13 years juggling his career, helping raise two daughters and night college classes. He earned a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of South Florida and his master's degree in management technology from the University of Miami.
Over the years, he met a few transgender people through work.
In the late 1980s or early '90s, he worked as a software engineer at Paradyne Corp. He remembers a guy, Ralph, who became Rachel for several months, but then decided to be Ralph again.
And about six years ago, a couple of transgender people came out at Honeywell.
Still, Guyette was stunned when Stanton told him he wanted to become a woman.
"I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined him to be transgender," Guyette said.
He recalled how Stanton showed off his bruises after a police SWAT drill and how the two bonded as fans of the University of Florida.
"The first 10 minutes I was in total shock," Guyette said. "But when I listened to his story I totally understood where he was coming from. I could see he really struggled his whole life with this issue.''
And Stanton wasn't just a colleague. He was a friend, even a mentor.
Guyette first went to Largo City Hall in the 1990s to complain about a fee he was charged for a new sidewalk in his neighborhood. Stanton persuaded him to get involved in city government as a member of the public works advisory board.
Later, as a city commissioner, Guyette earned a reputation for taking the job seriously, doing his homework and asking probing questions. He and Stanton met weekly to discuss city issues. Once city business was handled, conversation often drifted to fishing and hiking and the Gators.
Not everyone, however, was as friendly with the city manager. Former Mayor Bob Jackson and a former commissioner had both advised Guyette to keep an eye on Stanton.
• • •
As the news was breaking, Stanton met with Guyette one-on-one to explain what was happening. Guyette immediately decided to come to his aid.
So he thought about what he could say to help people understand Stanton's choice.
He knew about the harsh reaction a few years before when commissioners discussed an ordinance to ban discrimination of gay and transgender people.
"I wanted to make sure I was going to deflect some of that from him,'' he said.
Guyette got home a little after 3:30 p.m. the Wednesday in February that Stanton told him the news. He grabbed a blue spiral notebook and sat on a cushy patio chair on his lanai looking out onto Allen's Creek.
He started to jot down thoughts. He wanted people to know it was a condition in Stanton's brain that made him this way. That it wouldn't affect his job performance.
Hours later, he had filled four pages.
Over the next few days, he slept little more than two hours at a shot. Ideas came to him, just a sentence or two at a time. He'd grab his book from the nightstand and start to write. He couldn't shut his mind off. So he crawled out of bed and went out to the lanai to write some more.
The Sunday morning after the news broke, he was back out on the lanai, drinking a cup of black coffee and reading the St. Petersburg Times.
On the front page was a story about the officials Stanton had confided in at City Hall before news of his plans became public. The story described how Stanton's confidants — his "circle of trust" — included the mayor, a former commissioner, the fire chief and the police chief.
Guyette barely made it through the first section of the story when he started to make connections he'd never made before.
To Guyette, it appeared Stanton had made personnel moves — like promoting Jeff Bullock to fire chief over more senior managers — to put people who could help him into influential jobs.
"Sunday's paper hit me like a brick wall,'' he said. "I don't mind him surrounding himself with people. It was the way he picked and chose and got those people in certain positions."
Guyette read the story, then read a section to his wife. He told her he could no longer support Stanton. She agreed.
In the time it took to drink a cup of coffee, Guyette's view had turned completely around.
Two days later, he voted to put Stanton on leave. A month later, he voted to fire Stanton.
• • •
Guyette didn't regret his votes — still doesn't — but he received a slew of negative e-mails and calls afterward. Even some co-workers he didn't know made comments to him, assuming he fired Stanton because he was transgendered.
"People weren't listening to us," Guyette said. "People flat out didn't like me, but they didn't know me, and that was frustrating to say the least."
As for Stanton, Guyette hasn't seen or spoken to his old friend since Stanton started living as a woman.
Several month ago, though, CNN interviewed him for a documentary about Stanton.
Soon after, Guyette received a Christmas card.
"Gee," Susan Stanton wrote, "I sure miss our Gator talks."
The CNN producer had told her about Guyette's interview.
"I am sorry my personal life brought shame to my city," Stanton wrote. "So when the time is right let's talk my friend."
Sounds good, Guyette says. He did what he felt was his duty as a commissioner. But he, too, enjoyed those chats.
"If he was to call me today," he said, "I'd be more than happy to talk to him."