TALLAHASSEE — Just after 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Michele Rayner stepped into an elegant room lined with the portraits of Florida’s former House Speakers, a parade of white men looking out from golden frames.
Rayner, 39, was about to be sworn in, becoming the first openly LGBTQ woman of color in the Florida Legislature, and, according to Equality Florida, the first openly queer Black woman to hold any elective office in the state.
Her new desk occupied the chamber’s back row, next to state Rep. Christopher Benjamin, a Miami Gardens Democrat and the first Muslim to win election to the Legislature.
Together, they’ll be part of the minority — 42 Democrats to 78 Republicans. But Rayner feels the clash of history against the reality of Florida’s growing diversity: “The weight of the people of the state of Florida, that’s on me.”
She looked up to the gallery and spotted her wife, Bianca Goolsby, and her campaign strategist, Maya Brown. Then, holding back tears, she recited the oath. Rayner became the new House member from District 70, which covers the southern end of St. Petersburg and parts of Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties.
The day had started with a moment of meditation and Christian prayer, a skinny vanilla latte and deep reflection.
Rayner’s mother had been a social worker, among the first Black students to attend the University of South Florida. Her grandmother labored as a maid, cleaning floors for wealthy white families. Her great-grandparents were born to slaves.
It dawned on her: “I am my ancestors’ wildest dream.”
In a year that uprooted American life, Black women emerged as a political force.
Kamala Harris became the first woman and woman of color elected vice president. In Georgia, a campaign by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to fight voter suppression is credited with helping to turn that state blue in the presidential election. And Black women played a meaningful role in pushing people to the polls, registering new voters at unprecedented rates and winning elected office in historic numbers.
By the general election on Nov. 3, Rayner had already won the District 70 seat, having defeated three opponents in the Democratic primary. She described her victory as “pushing back on the patriarchy.”
People knew her as a local civil rights attorney who helped represent the family of Markeis McGlockton, the 28-year-old father shot and killed by Michael Drejka during a 2018 dispute outside a Clearwater convenience store. But she campaigned as someone who wanted to fight for people in a new way.
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She drew strong support from the Black community, women, Black women, LGBTQ people and progressives, said Rev. J.C. Pritchett II of St. Petersburg.
“That doesn’t happen every day,” he said. “They have a champion in her.”
Rayner continued campaigning through the general election.
On the afternoon of Nov. 3, she stood in front of Pinellas Community Church, urging voters to cast ballots for Pinellas County School Board candidate Caprice Edmond. The stakes in that race were particularly high, with a chance the board could lose its Black representation for the first time in nearly 20 years.
The School Board race was up for grabs among the undecided. Rayner told voters about Edmond, a young Black educator who was running against former City Council member and businessman Karl Nurse.
“I got your girl,” one voter said.
“Okay, she has my vote,” said another.
Edmond rode to a comfortable victory.
Rayner will have an impact on the House beyond which bills she works to pass, said Nadine Smith, Executive Director of Equality Florida.
“Her presence will alter the space,” she said. “It changes the dynamic when they’re talking to you and not about you.”
House District 70 is just over 40 percent Black and about 10 percent Hispanic, according to data from the four Supervisor of Elections offices that cover the district.
It’s an area that faces great need, particularly around health equity. “There are a lot of underserved communities,” said Rayner’s predecessor, Wengay Newton, who held the seat for four years.
Pinellas County’s Black community — largely concentrated in Rayner’s district — has been hit hard during the pandemic. In August, Pinellas’ Black residents were 2.5 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than the county’s white residents, one of the biggest disparities in the state.
Experts and community residents have pointed to systematic neglect, dense housing, higher likelihood for minorities to work high-exposure jobs and higher instances of pre-existing conditions in communities of color as reasons why they’ve been disproportionately impacted.
It’s a problem that hits close to home for the new House member.
“I haven’t hugged my parents since March,” said Rayner, whose mother, 76, and father, 78, have health issues. As COVID-19 cases soar across the country, the family decided not to have her parents attend her swearing-in ceremony. They watched virtually on The Florida Channel.
When Rayner stops by to see them, she stays in the car while they stand on the porch.
The Legislature has yet to truly address the pandemic, said Rayner, who intends to move the needle on key issues by finding common ground. And family, she said, is one area where lawmakers can connect.
Moments after Rayner was sworn in, House speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor lawyer and father of two, addressed the chamber.
He spoke about Black maternal health, courageous conversations around police culture, the stand your ground law, protest bills, climate and water, and committing the state to programs that build literacy.
Rayner does not agree with Sprowls on every issue, but applauds his commitment to family and faith.
“Those are places for us to find common ground,” she said.
Growing up in Clearwater, while friends played outside on Saturday mornings, Rayner’s mother would have her watch Eyes on the Prize, a television documentary about the civil rights era. She read the Autobiography of Malcolm X in elementary school and learned the words from speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
She said it was her mother’s way of teaching her where she came from, and what it meant to be Black, a woman and human.
On the surface, many see Harriet Singletary Rayner in her daughter. But Rayner points to her father, Earl Rayner, saying his pragmatism and willingness to trust are a big part of her personality.
“I’m a lot like him,” Rayner said. “He taught me to give people chances” and believe them until they prove you otherwise.
As a child, Rayner dreamed of becoming a doctor, then realized she had a knack for the law. “I’ll do both,” she thought. “I’ll go to law school, and then I’ll be a doctor.”
But when the reality of college algebra set in, the prospect of pursuing medicine faded and her affection for law solidified.
After graduating from Lakeside Christian School in Clearwater, Rayner pursued two degrees at Florida State University: a bachelor’s in political science and international affairs and a master’s in international affairs.
Inspired by The Cosby Show’s Clair Huxtable, who Rayner describes as a “completely sophisticated” Black female lawyer, she got her law degree at Florida Coastal School of Law.
Eventually, Rayner opened her own law firm, Civil Liberty Law, and become known for taking on racial and social justice cases — notably the McGlockton case, which sparked a national conversation about Florida’s stand your ground law.
The trial, raw and emotional, stirred up ill will.
“I really don’t know what’s motivating her other than profit,” said John Trevena, one of the lawyers representing Drejka, who was captured on a security video shooting McGlockton. Trevena said Rayner’s attacks on him and his team throughout the trial demonstrated a lack of maturity. “She’s not what she pretends to be,” he said.
But other opposing attorneys see it differently.
Although the case got heated, “I give credit to Michele,” said another Drejka attorney, Bryant Camareno. “I supported her speaking for the voiceless. ... I never took it personally because I knew she was just doing her job.”
“She’s a zealous advocate for her clients,” said Theresa Jean-Pierre Coy, a Black woman and lawyer for Drejka. “I have no doubt she’ll be an advocate for the people of Pinellas County.”
Those who’ve been around Rayner say they are drawn to her authenticity.
“She’s a straight-shooter,” said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, the first openly gay state senator in Florida. She’s very kind, he said, but “not to be messed with.”
Jones says Rayner’s career as a civil rights attorney is good preparation for Florida politics. He says she’ll fit right in.
“She has an infectious personality,” U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist said of Rayner, who flings her body forward when she laughs. “Very warm-hearted, very embracing. You couple that with her intellect and that’s a powerful duo.”
Rayner’s energy and spirit are two things her wife, Goolsby, love about her. But she can be a bit “all over the place,” Goolsby said. When Rayner’s visions feel too big to contain, she leans on Goolsby’s logic. Their personalities balance each other, they say.
They’ve been married for two years, together for four, with their “blended dog family.” There’s Hershey, Bella, and Prince Henry III Goolsby.
The beginning of their relationship was “spontaneous” and quickly intense.
“It wasn’t just an attraction,” Rayner said. “It was deeper.”
Prominent civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who worked with Rayner on the McGlockton case, took note of her skills and pushed her to run for the District 70 seat.
”I just saw how dynamic she was, how passionate she was, how strategic she was,” Crump said.
Rayner had always considered running for public office, but not this early in her career. “Sometimes, the moment chooses you,” Crump recalled telling Rayner in February.
After prayer and conversations with friends and family, she took the plunge.
Once she made up her mind, Crump said, “she went out and worked harder than anybody I know.”
Her opponents can vouch for that.
“Running against her was tough,” said Mark Oliver, one of Rayner’s challengers for the seat. Every event he attended, she was there too, he said.
“Losing to Michele Rayner was nothing I could ever be upset at myself about.”
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.