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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 vansant@sptimes.com.

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]

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