ST. PETERSBURG — Down the street from the community center where Mayor Bill Foster recently debated a rival in the city's mayoral race, a half-dozen of his campaign signs stood in the grass next to Georgie's Alibi, a well-known gay bar.
Inside the center, Foster was busy explaining to the audience why he's turned down every invitation to march in the city's annual gay pride parade. The event is too "adult-themed," he said.
While the contrast between the mayor's curbside courtship and reluctance to embrace the city's large gay community was striking, it also was a measure of how much the political clout of gays and lesbians in St. Petersburg has grown.
Last month's St. Pete Pride parade, the largest in the southeastern United States, drew more candidates and elected officials than ever before, organizers said. For the first time anyone involved in the parade can remember, a Pinellas county commissioner, Janet Long, took part in the parade. And while the city's mayor was conspicuously absent, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, became the first mayor to march in it.
"Candidates recognize what we can do for them," said Susan McGrath, president of the Pinellas Stonewall Democrats.
"They realize that the LGBT community gets out and votes and there's economic impacts, too," she added. "It doesn't behoove them to not have us on their side."
Most of the gains have been made outside of City Hall, beginning in 2008 with the election of Hillsborough's first openly gay county commissioner, Kevin Beckner, and in 2009, St. Petersburg's first openly gay city council member, Steve Kornell.
Now people are shrugging their shoulders at the City Council candidacy of Darden Rice and Amy Foster, who are openly gay.
"That we have the potential of three openly gay people on City Council is a matter of, as (U.S. House of Representatives Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi said, 'Who cares?'" said Rick Boylan, the vice chair of the Florida Democratic Party, who founded the Pinellas Stonewall Democrats.
More recently, state Rep. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat whose district includes parts of St. Petersburg, reversed his long-held opposition to gay marriage. His change of heart seemingly occurred last February at the Florida Democrats' annual dinner, where Boylan gave a speech about falling in love and eventually marrying the man who has been his partner for 30 years.
"St. Petersburg has become more cosmopolitan, certainly has become more diverse ... and I think there's huge tolerance and acceptance that comes with that kind of growth," Rouson said.
Last month, for the first time, he joined the line of elected officials in the city's gay pride parade.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who, like Rouson, belongs to a socially conservative church, and represents a district in St. Petersburg, hasn't walked in the parade, maintaining—like Foster—that it's not G-rated. Even so, the gay community knows "they have a friend in me," he said.
Welch remembers the angry voice messages he received after the county amended an ordinance in 2008 to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination. "There is some deep-seated faith-based opposition to same-sex marriage and particularly in south St. Pete," he said. "But you have to get the point where you're separating a person's individual faith from the government not discriminating against folks. I think we're getting to that point, we're not there yet."
But clearly gay rights advocates have come a long way since the founding of Stonewall Democrats in 2005. There were times when candidates seemed hesitant, unsure if winning the endorsement of a gay rights group would help or hurt.
There was also a fair amount of cluelessness.
Stonewall Democrats president McGrath recalled one candidate who came to the organization seeking an endorsement.
"Stonewall Dems, this is great," the candidate gushed. "Where did you guys get your name, from Stonewall Jackson?"
(The group takes its name from Stonewall Inn in New York's Greenwich Village, where a police raid in 1969 helped start the gay rights movement.)
Though the city has been a welcoming place, the mayor's office has never fully embraced the gay community. Foster's predecessor, Rick Baker, thumbed his nose at pride parade organizers, even as the event's attendance hit double the seating capacity at Tropicana Field. When the city elected Foster, a conservative Christian, many expected more of the same.
Now campaigning for a second term, Foster is highlighting the fact that he did not turn out to be the anti-gay mayor his opponents assumed he would be.
Four years ago, many gay voters backed Kathleen Ford, who is running for mayor again this year. This time, the Stonewall Democrats have thrown their weight behind Rick Kriseman, a former City Council member who has been involved in the St. Pete Pride parade every year, was its grand marshal last year, and believes it's a failure of leadership for Foster to abstain.
"There's an unspoken message when you are not willing to participate in an event that is one of the largest events that the city hosts," he said recently.
Gay advocates seem to know what they have in Foster: a mayor who has supported them on practical issues such as health care, but won't take the symbolic leap of marching in the parade.
Yet he is still finding ways to surprise them.
At the LGBT mayoral forum earlier this month, the moderator asked Foster and Kriseman if they'd support adding gender identity to an ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. As a council member, Foster opposed it in 2002; Kriseman supported it.
Kriseman stepped to the mic with the confidence of a man who knows the audience will like what he's about to say. "Yes," he said, and sat back down.
Then it was Foster's turn. "Yes," he said.
The audience broke into applause. Said one listener: "I almost fell out of my chair."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.