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Endorsement in Florida House race sparks controversy over LGBTQ issues

Local advocates and politicians question the Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas County's recent endorsement.
Mark Oliver and Michele Rayner are running for the Florida House District 70 seat.
Mark Oliver and Michele Rayner are running for the Florida House District 70 seat. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jul. 14, 2020
Updated Jul. 14, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — As soon as the Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas County endorsed Mark Oliver for House District 70, the backlash began.

In June, the organization, whose mission is to advocate for LGBTQ equality within the Democratic Party, announced its support for Oliver over attorney and civil rights activist Michele Rayner, who — if elected — would be one of the first openly LGBTQ women of color elected to Florida’s Legislature.

Local LGBTQ advocates took to social media to express their frustration in what seemed like political déjà vu. In 2016, the Stonewall Democrats came under similar fire after endorsing Christopher “CJ” Czaia over Dan Fiorini, an openly gay candidate, in the same House race.

This time around, it was a Facebook post by Ashley Green, a community organizer, that sparked a stream of heated comments surrounding the endorsement.

In the post, Green wrote, “You should be embarrassed to call yourself ‘Stonewall’ anything,” noting that the group is named for the New York City bar where, in 1969, the modern gay rights movement was launched.

Related: Civil rights lawyer Michele Rayner announces campaign for Florida House

Allegations that Oliver made derogatory remarks regarding Rayner’s appearance and sexuality have surfaced among LGBTQ advocates and those involved in local Democratic organizations. Oliver adamantly denies the accusations.

The social media firestorm grew so fierce that Oliver held a news conference on the steps of St. Petersburg City Hall late last month. With his family standing behind him, dressed in blue “Mark Oliver” campaign shirts, he called for an end to comments made against him and his family, citing the “vicious attacks” he’s said he’s seen online about his family for the color of their skin and his thin voting record.

Oliver, a 28-year-old former University of South Florida football player, is the founder of Specially Fit, a nonprofit that trains people with intellectual disabilities. He says he only recently registered to vote, because prior to this year, he felt as though politics had overlooked him.

“Politics hasn’t done anything for a lot of people because they felt overlooked; they see how dirty it is,” Oliver said at the news conference. “I was in that same category.”

Rayner said she is aware of the comments Oliver has allegedly made about her, but believes no one should have to talk about their identity on someone else’s terms. Oliver, she said, has pushed LGBTQ identity as an issue in the race for his own political benefit, especially considering his lack of engagement with the LGBTQ community prior to the endorsement.

The conversations surrounding identity are deeper than a single endorsement, said Rayner who is married to Bianca Goolsby, an education advocate. “I live at those intersections,” she said. “It makes me the advocate that I am.”

Oliver joined the District 70 race in January, after leaving Hillsborough County’s District 59 race, which will elect a replacement for Rep. Adam Hattersley, D-Riverview. Oliver said he moved back to his hometown to be closer to his recently adopted siblings. District 70 covers the southern end of St. Petersburg and parts of Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Also running in the District 70 race are candidates Keisha Bell and Michelle Grimsley. In a heavily Democratic district with no candidates running on the Republican side, the seat will be decided in the August primary.

Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, who currently holds the seat, is not running for re-election, opting instead to run for Pinellas County Commission.

Rayner and Oliver are the two frontrunners in the four-way race, having raised $63,592.20 and $42,920.52, respectively. Campaign contributions for Bell sit at $22,095.70 and Grimsley’s total $15,745.88.

For the candidates, increasing public education funding, reforming the criminal justice system in ways such as backing Amendment 4, and supporting affordable healthcare and housing are some of the most pressing issues this race, particularly because of the disproportionate impact these policies have on people of color.

Some candidates are using their platforms to discuss issues their opponents may not be. Oliver supports paying college athletes to offset living expenses while in school and Bell is focused on addressing the threat of climate change and supporting policy for environmental justice.

Although Oliver said he stands with the LGBTQ community as an ally, advocates aren’t sold on the endorsement.

“It always seemed a little odd that there hadn’t been more outreach to Michele Rayner,” said Green, 30, regarding the Stonewall Democrats endorsement process.

For Green, the endorsement of Oliver feels as though a young Black man is being pitted against a Black queer woman, which she believes calls into question what the Stonewall Democrats represent.

“When you have the opportunity to support Black women, you choose to not to,” wrote Jayson James in a Facebook comment. “What is Stonewall if not standing up for Black queer women??????”

Jane Morris, the vice president for political action for the Stonewall Democrats, said sexual orientation is not necessarily the ultimate criteria by which the group evaluates candidates.

“We don’t always endorse the gay candidate,” said Morris. “We endorse the best candidate.”

Morris said the organization’s endorsement method has been around for 10 years and adheres to “very strict” bylaws, including interviews of each candidate and voting among members.

There are “plenty of qualified attorneys running for the Florida house,” said Susan McGrath, the president of the Stonewall Democrats, but there’s “something to be said for fresh voices.” McGrath said Oliver’s candidacy can mobilize younger voters who may not have previously been active in politics themselves, she said.

Regarding Rayner’s presence in the community, McGrath says she hadn’t run into Rayner prior to this campaign. “If she’s been doing work in the community, I don’t know of it,” said McGrath.

“I don’t have a feeling one way or the other towards the Stonewalls,” said Rayner. “People are free to endorse whoever they would like.”

Equality Florida, the largest LGBTQ advocacy organization in the state, recently endorsed Rayner and critics of the Stonewall Democrats’ endorsement say it shows the merits of her campaign, not only because of her identity, but because of her local advocacy that spans years as a civil rights attorney and community activist.

“Michele Rayner is the clear choice for everyone who values justice, fairness and equality, especially now,” Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, who also lives in District 70, wrote in a statement.

Despite the Stonewall snub, Rayner is racking up endorsements, including ones from U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, state Senator Darryl Rouson, who previously served as president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, and Ruth’s List, a Florida-based organization working to elect Democratic women running for public office.

“The Legislature needs her,” said Rep. Jennifer Webb, D-St. Petersburg, who’s the first openly LGBTQ woman elected to the state Legislature. “Representation matters.”

Newton, who will serve in the House seat until November, said he strongly endorses his legislative aide, Michelle Grimsley, and does not understand the Stonewall Democrats’ recent endorsement.

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t endorse someone from the (LGBTQ) community,” he said.

Related: Tempers flare in contentious House District 70 race over key LGBT endorsement