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Steve Kornell wins St. Petersburg council seat with skillful campaign unrelated to his being gay

Steve Kornell gets a hug from campaign volunteer Judy Ellis, 68, on Tuesday after winning the race for the St. Petersburg City Council. He carefully timed his message to win the mail-in vote.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Steve Kornell gets a hug from campaign volunteer Judy Ellis, 68, on Tuesday after winning the race for the St. Petersburg City Council. He carefully timed his message to win the mail-in vote.

ST. PETERSBURG — Steve Kornell broke barriers last week when he became the first openly gay person to win election to the St. Petersburg City Council.

But historic firsts don't begin to capture the essence of Kornell's saga — how a hometown boy traded on civic connections to run a masterful campaign.

Very little of Kornell's decisive win related to sexuality or interest-group politics. Two of the city's most gay-friendly neighborhoods — which piled up big margins for other favored candidates — gave no special boost to Kornell.

His biggest margins came in City Council District 3, stronghold of mayor-elect Bill Foster, a social conservative.

Kornell's was an old-fashioned, shoe-leather campaign that carefully plotted strategy and harnessed about 200 volunteers.

They knocked on doors months before his two opponents entered the race. They tracked mail-in voters right down to who made decisions quickly and who took their time. They made 5,000 phone calls in the last four days.

And unlike four years ago, when a lesbian candidate was publicly called a sinner, Kornell's sexual orientation never became an issue. Both his opponents took the high road in what observers called the best-run, most civil of all council races.

"I'll bet 90 percent of the voters had no clue he was gay," said businessman Scott Wagman, who courted the gay and lesbian vote during his unsuccessful run for mayor.

"Steve worked hard and talked about the issues and did not champion gay causes. I think some gays may have taken issue with that. I was waving the gay flag more than he was."

Kornell, 43, has worked much of his adult life in city recreation centers and now counsels troubled teens at Boca Ciega and Lakewood high schools. He hopes to continue that work, at least part time, if he can meld it with council business, he said last week.

His top two priorities on the council: public safety and economic diversity. Sometimes better jobs lead to less crime, he said.

The District 5 seat, which wraps around St. Petersburg's southern edge, opened up when Jamie Bennett ran for mayor. It was the only council race without an incumbent.

Kornell filed in January, touting his experience running programs for kids. "I had done a lot of work in the community," he said last week. "People were used to dealing with me on a daily basis and I had gotten things done for them year after year."

Members of the gay and lesbian community volunteered, as did friends from the school system and neighborhood associations and fellow activists in the local Democratic Party.

The District 5 primary was ready-made for retail politicking.

"We walked the district six or seven times over a period of six months," said Steve Lapinski, Kornell's campaign manager. "If you were a super voter, we visited your house until you said you were either for Steve or not. If you were undecided, we put someone else on your door a few weeks later. By the end, everyone knew Steve."

Kornell took 49 percent of the September primary vote, vs. 32 percent for Angela Rouson, a marketing professional and stay-at-home mom, and 19 percent for former police officer Joe Smith.

Strategy changed for the general election.

For starters, the Kornell camp worried about last-minute smears by Rouson or her supporters, Lapinski said.

Four years earlier, environmental activist Darden Rice, a lesbian, ran a close race against incumbent Earnest Williams. At some public meetings, Rice faced angry shouts about her sexual orientation. Rice said she doesn't know if those attacks helped defeat her, but thinks her candidacy helped pave Kornell's way.

"We took a lot of heat, but we stuck to the issues of campaigning," she said. "That kind of shut down the hate and people got used to" gay candidates.

"I'm really proud that Steve has taken it to the next level."

To protect against last-minute surprises, the Kornell campaign made mail-in voters its No. 1 priority.

The campaign identified voters who had mailed their ballots back quickly in the primary, then timed door-to-door visits and mailings to those voters so Kornell's message would arrive just as they received their general election ballots.

He won the mail-in vote 61 percent to 39 percent, compared to an overall margin of 59-41.

As it turned out, Rouson stuck to issues and experience.

"I made it clear from the beginning of my campaign that I wanted this race to be focused on truth and qualifications," Rouson said. "I didn't want to be evaluated on my race or my sex. It says a lot about this community that they didn't either."

Rouson said the campaign energized her and might lead to future races. Her demeanor and refusal to play any gay card won her widespread praise.

"The voters had two great choices," Rice said. "Angela is going to be around a long time and Steve will make his mark on City Council."

Geographically, the Kornell camp targeted its general election efforts to the city's northern and western neighborhoods.

They figured that voters in District 5 already knew Kornell and that Rouson owned name recognition in Districts 6 and 7, which conform closely to her husband Darryl's state legislative district.

Northern and western neighborhoods were more virgin territory, so that's where Kornell mailers and door-knockers reminded voters that he had run programs in recreation centers in Shore Acres, Gladden Park, Fossil Park and Northwest Youth Center.

The results showed:.

• Kornell picked up 67 percent of the vote in District 3 that runs from Snell Isle to Meadowlawn. Bill Foster, who once represented that district on the council, also garnered his biggest margin there — 60 percent, compared to his citywide total of 53.

So in Foster's back yard, the city's first gay council candidate outgained the mayoral candidate who doesn't support St. Petersburg's Gay Pride celebration.

• By contrast, Kornell made few waves in the four precincts that make up Kenwood and the Old Southeast, two of the city's most gay-friendly neighborhoods. In the 10-candidate mayoral primary, Scott Wagman won those precincts handily while courting the gay and lesbian vote, pulling in 33 percent compared to his citywide total of 15.

• In the general election, Kathleen Ford, who vigorously supported Gay Pride, won 47 percent of the mayoral vote but 64 percent in Kenwood and the Old Southeast. All four of those precincts were among her top seven.

In the end, Kornell was more of a citywide candidate. Some precincts in his home district gave him 70 to 78 percent margins.

None of his top 17 precincts fell in Kenwood or the Old Southeast, where he averaged 63 percent — less than Ford and barely above his citywide average of 59.

Those numbers still puzzle Lapinski. "Maybe we've just come a long way."

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report.

Steve Kornell wins St. Petersburg council seat with skillful campaign unrelated to his being gay 11/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 7, 2009 11:01pm]
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