TAMPA — Times have changed since H. Thomas Lewis was outed while running for City Council in 1990.
His sexual orientation came out in a newspaper story without his input. He hadn't hidden the fact that he was gay but he hadn't publicly announced it, either.
"I had people call me up and tell me to come get my campaign signs out of their yard because they didn't want to be associated with me," he said. Others apparently didn't want to vote for him either.
Twenty years later, the political landscape in Hillsborough County is shifting. Over the past two years, Kevin Beckner, an openly gay candidate, was elected to the Hillsborough County Commission, and Jane Castor, who is also gay, was appointed Tampa police chief.
Now Carrie West, a founder and president of the GaYbor District Coalition, seeks to be the first openly gay candidate on the City Council. He ran once before in 1998 but failed.
"It's more sociably acceptable but as far as the Tampa Bay area is concerned, truthfully, we have a long way to go," Lewis, 63, said. "But the only way we're going to get there is through Carrie running and Beckner winning and people like that."
There may be other local politicians who are gay, but who don't discuss it publicly. The reasons may be personal, as well as political.
When Beckner ran for County Commission in 2008, however, he acknowledged his orientation while distancing himself from being a champion for any sort of gay agenda. He focused instead on broad issues that affected all voters. West is modeling his message after Beckner.
"He's worked hard representing all the people," West said, "and that's what I'm working hard doing myself."
While West, 58, prefers to talk about business development, transportation, jobs, historical preservation and downtown redevelopment, his campaign is rooted in Tampa Bay's gay community. His clout comes from GaYbor, which has grown into a coalition of 286 gay and gay-friendly businesses since it began in 2007. The group has helped recruit or establish several new Ybor businesses, including the Honey Pot lounge, Streetcar Charlie's restaurant and Hamburger Mary's Bar & Grille.
On Monday, West plans to hold his kickoff fundraiser at Hamburger Mary's, which bills itself as "the only national franchise actively marketing itself to the gay community."
Whether West's supporters will prove to be enough in an increasingly crowded race remains to be seen. Others who have filed to run include Herold L. Lord, Stanley L. Gloster, Lynette "Tracee" Judge and Frank Reddick.
While West embraces his orientation, he wants to make it clear that he isn't trying to break any barriers.
"I'm not basing my candidacy on that. I happen to be a businessman who's gay. I just happen to know the businesses I know best, and I represent a lot of gay or gay-friendly businesses," he said. "But I also support other markets and niches right now. I sit on the Ybor chamber working on helping all sorts of businesses. I don't think people are looking at me as a gay candidate. They want someone with integrity who could speak to them on their level."
West's candidacy comes at a time when gays are making more inroads into public office than ever. The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a national advocacy group of openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual political candidates, reported that at least 106 of its 164 endorsed candidates were elected — the most LGBT candidates to succeed during an election.
That momentum, coupled with Beckner's success, has some believing Tampa is ready to elect its first openly gay council member.
"I think that Kevin Beckner's election countywide demonstrated that being gay was not a bar to being elected," said former council member Linda Saul-Sena, who served 19 years, "and I think the city is generally more tolerant than the county."
West hopes so. On an initial Facebook post he made in October testing the political waters before he ran, he wrote an open letter that began, "In 1998, I ran as the first openly Gay candidate for Tampa City Council. ... A lot has changed in Tampa since that time."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.