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St. Petersburg's gay community seeks to become key voting bloc in mayor and council elections

ST. PETERSBURG –– The rows of rainbow flags, feather boas and glitter-streaked men dressed as Hollywood starlets made for an unusual campaign backdrop.

But there they were, a handful of St. Petersburg mayoral and City Council candidates, passing out campaign literature, posing for pictures and introducing themselves to potential voters amid Saturday's St. Pete Pride festivities.

In a sign of St. Petersburg's changing politics, the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is harnessing its collective voice, forcing candidates to take notice.

After years of tension between the group and conservative Mayor Rick Baker, it's seizing the coming leadership change as a chance to make inroads and get its issues addressed.

"It is a matter of get-out-the-vote," said Rick Boylan, founder of the Pinellas Stonewall Democrats. "If we can mobilize the community and inform them of which candidates support issues and which candidates are pro-equality and get them to participate, we can definitely have an impact on who is elected."

The community sees Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner's election in November as a sign that the area is ready to embrace — or at least tolerate — them. Beckner was open about being gay during his campaign.

Now the group's efforts are focused on St. Petersburg City Council candidate Steve Kornell, a social worker with a shot at becoming the city's first openly gay elected official.

Beckner hosted a fundraiser for Kornell in Ybor City. Kornell also enjoys the financial and political support of prominent gay groups Victory Fund and Equality Florida.

The community's recent level of outreach is unprecedented.

St. Pete Pride hosted its first mayoral forum last week, drawing seven candidates.

Mayoral hopefuls Jamie Bennett, Kathleen Ford and Scott Wagman campaigned at St. Pete Pride, an event Baker has shunned since he was elected in 2001. Wagman marched alongside a crew of "fabulous" dogs he called Waggers for Wagman. Ford set up a booth. Bennett walked in the parade.

There also were City Council candidates aplenty.

Incumbents Jeff Danner, Leslie Curran and Karl Nurse put in appearances, along with Vel Thompson and Kornell.

The Stonewall Democrats interviewed the Democratic front-runners –– Ford, Wagman and Bennett –– and expect to endorse a candidate next month.

Nurse has also scheduled an upcoming fundraiser at Georgie's Alibi, a popular gay bar.

Gay activists said they are searching for a candidate who will best serve both the interests of residents citywide and the gay community. In other words, they want a mayor who will grant city workers domestic partner benefits and combat crime.

The gay community has been a growing presence in St. Petersburg since at least 2001, when St. Pete Pride was founded.

The Stonewall Democrats formed its chapter after campaign consultant Darden Rice lost her City Council bid in 2005. Rice was smeared for being a gay woman.

"That was a big consideration when I decided to run. What would happen? Would people be ready for me?" she said.

Beckner's election changed the political landscape, Rice said.

"I don't know that it has the newness or shock value it had before," she said.

The Stonewall Democrats rallied behind political newcomer Wengay Newton in 2007, helping to elect him to the City Council despite widespread opposition from political elite, including Baker. Newton's opponent was not seen as a supporter of gay rights. Newton, meanwhile, has walked in every St. Pete Pride since he was elected.

Beckner's victory over his conservative opponent in 2008 further buoyed hopes that the gay community could wield its influence in St. Petersburg.

"There is a personal stake in it for a lot of people now," said David Schauer, a St. Pete Pride organizer. "We see that we can make a difference."

Kornell said he does not think his sexual orientation will cost him votes. He faces community activist Angela Rouson and retired police Officer Joe Smith in the District 5 race, which covers the city's southernmost region.

Rouson and Smith are African-American. Kornell is white.

"I've always felt that discrimination has no place in our city," Kornell said.

Just how much impact the gay vote will have is difficult to measure. The organizational efforts are mostly untested and the size of the community in St. Petersburg is unknown.

The state GLBT Democratic Caucus estimated about 74,000 gay people in Pinellas, or roughly 8 percent of the population.

Still, candidates aren't taking any chances.

Republicans Bill Foster and Larry Williams attended the June 22 St. Pete Pride mayoral forum and spoke of their traditional beliefs.

"I went," Foster said, "It wasn't because I thought I was going to garner a lot of votes or get the most applause, but I want every citizen to know that I intend to listen and I intend to represent their interests whether we agree or disagree."

Bennett paid $500 to be a St. Pete Pride sponsor this year.

"They definitely participate in campaigns," he said. "No candidate or mayor can ignore them."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

On the Web

Want to know more about the mayoral candidates and their positions? Go to tampabay.com/mayor.

Key dates

Sept. 1 is the primary.

Nov. 3 is general election.

St. Petersburg's gay community seeks to become key voting bloc in mayor and council elections 06/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 3:39pm]
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