Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Surprising alliances revealed in Pinellas commission race

Darden Rice came close in 2005 to winning a seat on the St. Petersburg City Council representing a majority African-American district, despite her acknowledged failure to establish broad support from black leaders.

Now, several of the city's black political operators who backed her opponent, Earnest Williams, three years ago are supporting Rice, who is white, in her campaign for the County Commission.

It's a shift made more notable because Rice is gay, which clashes with the religious beliefs of some of her African-American backers. And Rice's opponent in the Aug. 26 Democratic primary is Rene Flowers, who was elected to the St. Petersburg City Council in 1999.

Deveron Gibbons, chairman of the St. Petersburg College board of trustees, was among those who backed Williams three years ago but is supporting Rice now.

"We beat Darden back," Gibbons said, "but in the process we grew to respect her. She's a tenacious campaigner."

Rice, formerly regional representative for the Sierra Club, said she learned a lesson from her loss to Williams. As she launched this campaign, Rice met with black leaders who formerly opposed her to convey a message: I respect your political clout, want to represent you and am asking for support.

Gibbons said Rice was shrewd to talk one on one with people rather than make a broad appeal, a move that showed she understood that the black political community is not monolithic but composed of individuals with unique issues and allegiances.

Rice, 38, said the backing she has gotten hasn't surprised her but is a relief.

"We are working hard to get support from the entire county," Rice said, "but the support from the black community is particularly meaningful because it shows that we have built bridges and that I've come a long way."

County Commissioner Ken Welch helped recruit Rice to run before Flowers expressed interest. Welch isn't endorsing anyone but doesn't regret recruiting Rice.

At a recent NAACP candidates forum in St. Petersburg, Rice said Welch reached out to her. A longtime friend of Welch's expressed surprise that Welch, who belongs to a socially conservative church, would support a gay candidate.

Welch was in the audience and replied that Rice's sexual orientation is just one aspect of her life.

"I said, 'Darden is strong and would make a good commissioner,' " Welch recalls.

While the church is still a force in the black community, Welch said there's a greater sense today that private beliefs should not bar the faithful from promoting accord and building working relationships with those who are different.

"I think it's a new level of respect for the views of others," Welch said. "At the end of the day, we are all Pinellas County citizens."

Gibbons agrees, saying that identity politics doesn't have the traction it once did.

"There's been an evolutionary process," Gibbons said. "I think people are looking for smart, fresh, innovative leadership."

Flowers, who spent eight years on the City Council and was president of the Florida League of Cities in 2007, chalks up some of Rice's support from black leaders to political grievances.

"If you don't support somebody's specific project," Flowers said, "if you don't see eye to eye to them on a specific issue, then you're not their friend."

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, for instance, has endorsed Rice. In the primary battle for his seat in March, Flowers backed Williams.

Flowers still enjoys sizable support in St. Petersburg, though she has not matched Rice in fundraising. Rice has outraised Flowers in campaign cash 3 to 1 — $36,869 to Flowers' $12,049, according to the most recent reports. Rice has also outspent Flowers, $30,100 to $11,432.

Much as her opponent has, Flowers has reached into new political territory for the countywide District 3 seat, including asking municipal leaders in mid and north Pinellas for help.

Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris knows Flowers from the League of Cities and was so impressed that she endorsed her despite wariness about getting involved in a countywide race.

"I have seen her commitment and her drive," Billiris said. "I think she would bring so much to the table."

Will Van Sant can be reached at (727) 445-4166 or

Note: This story has been changed to correct an error. C. Bette Wimbish was the St. Petersburg City Council’s first black member. This story was incorrect about who achieved this distinction.

Surprising alliances revealed in Pinellas commission race 08/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 8:58pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rays make Hechavarria trade official


    Here is the release from the team ...


  2. Jones: Will Tampa Bay hit a Hall of Fame dry spell now?

    Lightning Strikes

    Marty St. Louis may lack the Hall of Fame stats, but two scoring titles, an MVP award and clutch goals should count for a lot. (Dirk Shadd, Times)
  3. SeaWorld shares drop Monday to 2017 low after disclosure of federal subpoena


    The Orlando parent company of SeaWorld and Busch Gardens theme parks saw its stock drop 3.5 percent Monday to $15.10, its lowest price of this year.

    Killer whales perform at Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld in Orlando in 2011, before public pressure was placed on the theme park company to curtail its orca shows.SeaWorld has since announced an end to the traditional killer whale entertainment  at its theme parks. [AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack]
  4. Update: Scientology cancels planned mock FBI raid on downtown building

    Special Topics

    CLEARWATER — The Church of Scientology planned to film a mock FBI raid on a downtown building Monday afternoon, but the actors and cameras never showed up to the location disclosed to the city.

    According to Clearwater Police, the Church of Scientology plans to hold a mock FBI raid at 3 p.m. Monday at this vacant building at 305 N Fort Harrison Ave. Police announced the raid in advance to alert the public. They said they did not know the reason for the event. [Google Earch image]
  5. Support for gay marriage surges, even among groups once wary

    Human Interest

    NEW YORK — In the two years since same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, support for it has surged even among groups that recently were broadly opposed, according to a new national survey.

    People gather in Washington's Lafayette Park to see the White House lit up in rainbow colors on June 26, 2015, the day the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage legal. In the two years since same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, support for it has surged even among groups that recently were broadly opposed, according to a new national survey released on Monday, June 26, 2017. [Associated Press]