As a City Council member, Bill Foster railed against an effort to protect gay and lesbians under the city's antidiscrimination ordinance.
Foster the mayoral candidate spent the last week chatting over cocktails with gay business owners and inviting gay advocates to lunch.
It's an election year, and St. Petersburg's growing gay community, a diverse demographic whose size and political influence can be difficult to know for sure, can't be ignored. With less than two months before the November general election, every potential vote counts.
Foster's rival, Kathleen Ford, would seem to have the most realistic hope of winning the gay vote. Ford waved campaign signs during the city's annual gay pride parade this year. She's also promised to extend domestic partner benefits to city employees and sign the city's annual proclamation recognizing gay pride. Foster hasn't.
Instead, he hopes his easy-going reputation and views on other weighty issues will sway undecided gay voters his way.
"I am not conceding that vote," said Foster in a recent interview. "I want to be their mayor."
Gay leaders and advocates have elbowed their way into St. Petersburg's political mainstream at an unprecedented rate in recent months. St. Pete Pride hosted its first candidate forum earlier this year. Questions about equal rights popped up at a handful of other mayoral forums. Gay groups flocked to help elect newcomer Scott Wagman in the mayoral primary, and they suggest his fourth-place finish ahead of two previously elected officials is a testament to their political strength.
With Wagman out of the picture, their support and campaign contributions are up for grabs.
But it might be a tough sell for Foster, a Christian conservative who once called homosexuality a lifestyle choice.
Foster was the only council member to immediately come out against a 2001 effort to amend the city's 20-year-old human rights ordinance to include protection for gays and lesbians.
"I am for individual freedom to live however one chooses," Foster said at the time. "But I will never support an ordinance that singles out a way of life for special protection."
The measure eventually passed. More recently, Foster said he didn't approve the ordinance because supporters failed to present evidence that showed more protection was needed.
"Was I to conclude that there was no discrimination ever? No," he said recently. "There was no evidence to conclude there was at that time."
Foster said he would approve extending benefits to employees' domestic partners if the city could afford it.
"There will not be discrimination in my administration," he said, but would not say whether he believed being gay is a sin.
Gay advocates have blasted Foster throughout the mayoral campaign.
"He's much more aggressive about enforcing his religious views upon society as a whole, and that's not something we saw with Baker," said Progress Florida executive director Mark Ferrulo, referring to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, also a conservative Christian.
Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, sent e-mails to supporters during the primary election calling Foster's views homophobic.
Ford, meanwhile, is clearly more supportive of gay-friendly policies. She said she will look at ushering in domestic partner benefits during her first year as mayor.
"To remain competitive, the city has to offer the same benefits that other governments offer," she said, citing Tampa, where benefits were extended to domestic partners at a cost of about $73,000 a year in 2004.
Being gay is not a sin, said Ford. People are born that way, she said.
What's more, she said the City Council was wrong to exclude transgender individuals when the human rights ordinance was changed to protect gays and lesbians. Eventually, all public bathrooms should be unisex, private-stall bathrooms to accommodate everyone, she said.
"We are a diverse city, and my campaign is about being open to everyone," she said. "Once you discriminate against one group, who will it be tomorrow?"
Although the mayor's race is nonpartisan, the Pinellas Stonewall Democrats rushed to support Ford, a Democrat, after the primary.
But Foster's overtures have not gone unnoticed. He invited Brian Longstreth, a St. Pete Pride founder, to lunch. He also answered business owners' questions during an hourlong chat at Georgie's Alibi, a gay bar, Wednesday night.
"He made an apology for things he might have said in the past about the gay community and human rights," said Realtor Bob Barnum, a Foster fan. "I believed him to be sincere."
What's unclear, however, is how some of Foster's more conservative supporters will view his latest outreach effort.