St. Petersburg – On Tuesday, Aug. 27, voters in St. Petersburg could take the first steps toward adding two openly gay women to the City Council’s roster. Both Darden Rice and Amy Foster are seeking the District 4 and District 8 seats, respectively. If they survive the primary, both would go on to the general election in November.

If they win there, they could join Steve Kornell on the council. Kornell became Pinellas County’s first openly gay elected official when he won his first term in 2009.

This is Rice’s third time running for public office and she is often in the spotlight throughout the community through a number of organizations. Earlier this year she stepped down as the president of the League of Women Voters, a post she held for three years, she’s the chair of the legislative committee of the PSTA transit board and has been active in the Sierra Club and the Gulf Restoration Network.
Both women are confident that their sexuality is not an issue for voters, who are more concerned about day-to-day issues of the city, like the Pier, the Tampa Bay Rays and shear economics.

“I think it’s really important for our city to grow, because if people don’t feel safe, then as soon as they have kids, what happens, they move to Clearwater, they move to the suburbs,” Foster told Watermark in June. “There’s this energy here, it’s really amazing.”

Foster is the vice president of St. Pete Pride and faces Robert Davis, Alex Duensing and Steve Galvin in the race for Jeff Danner’s position. Danner can’t seek re-election due to term limits.

Davis, 53, is a library assistant and Duensing, 39, is an adjunct USF poetry professor who made media headlines when he prepared for the Mayan Apocalypse from his rooftop last December.

Galvin, 55, is a music producer.

Foster is optimistic and feels that a strong female presence on the council would be very beneficial to the city.

“It’s that collaborative nature, and figuring out a winning outcome for everyone at the table, and that is part of a woman’s nature,” she said. “Having someone who is little more able to see all sides and figure out what the middle ground may be is very beneficial, and I think that’s one of the strong suits of having a female presence.”

Rice is seeking the seat being vacated by councilwoman Leslie Curran, who cannot run for re-election because of term limits.

“The main reason I’m running is to make St. Pete strong,” Rice told Watermark in March. “I have a plan called St. Pete Strong that focuses on three areas.”

Those areas are strong business and jobs, strong communities and neighborhoods and strong city services, she said.

“The role of City Council and City Government is the ensure that businesses have the resources they need for job growth; that neighborhoods and communities reflect a desirable place to live work and play, and that City Services are lean and effective,” Rice said in her plan. “With this focus, our city will realize its greatest purpose and opportunity, to continue to thrive and be the vital community where people come to live, work and play.”

So far this election, Rice’s sexuality has been barely mentioned at campaign stops. But it has been noted in several publications, mostly in a historic context.

Rice and her partner, Julie, live in St. Petersburg, so the future of the city is important to her, she said.

“My partner and I want to live long lives ahead together in the city we call home,” Rice said. “I think what makes St. Petersburg special is its offerings, its location, its diversity and the arts. But all of that depends on a city that fosters and encourages a strong job base.”

Rice faces Richard Eldridge, Carolyn Fries and David McKalip in the primary. Eldridge, 51, works as a taxi driver and received his biology degree from the University of South Florida. He was among 10 candidates who ran for mayor in 2009. Fries, 45, is a former Crescent Lake Neighborhood Association president. And McKalip, 47, is a neurosurgeon who in 2009 made headlines after forwarding an e-mail depicting President Barack Obama as a witch doctor at the height of the Affordable Health Care debate.

Rice believes voters will look at the issues, rather than her sexuality, when they enter the polls on Aug. 29.

“The world changes, people think about these issues,” she said. “When they think about fairness and ending discrimination, we generally prevail. It speaks to how much the world has changed.”

Both women have been endorsed by the Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas County and by Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, that county’s first and only out elected official.

Only voters residing in Districts 4, 6, and 8 may vote in the primary election. The names of the two candidates receiving the most votes per district will be placed on the Sept. 5 general election ballot.

Voters will also narrow the field for St. Petersburg mayor during the Aug. 29 Primary. Mayor Bill Foster, former City Councilman Rick Kriseman and local activist Kathleen Ford are all seeking the office and are seen as the frontrunners in the race. Anthony Cates and Paul Congemi are also on the ballot.

While none of the candidates for mayor are gay, the LGBT community has centered quite prominently in the campaign process.
Foster, who heavily defeated Ford in 2009, has slowly embraced the LGBT community by approving a domestic partner registry, extending benefits to same-sex partners of city employees and becoming the first mayor of the city to ever sign a proclamation recognizing St. Pete Pride.

He continues to say, however, that St. Pete Pride is too adult-themed and refuses to attend.

During the July 9 debate, Foster was asked about that position, but answered by pointing out some of his accomplishments as mayor including navigating the city’s finances through one of the most difficult financial years in memory, securing greater private investment and a strong city focus on the arts and cultural events. He pointed to the numerous cranes in the city skyline as proof of positive economic development.

Turning to Pride, he praised the economic impact of the event, which he noted has been shown to be about $10 million. He said the event helps new people get the “vibe” of St. Petersburg and he praised the event’s impact on drawing visitors and residents together. However, he kept to the party line he has been quoted on frequently that he will not march in the parade because he believes the event is too adult-oriented.

Kriseman followed the same format as Foster, first giving an opening statement saying he felt that in his role as a state representative he saw that in Tallahassee that partisanship was often more important than policy, a position he said he doesn’t see in St. Petersburg. He mentioned that while he often disagreed with former mayor Rick Baker on some issues it didn’t get in the way of him helping move the city forward.

“This is an extraordinary city full of extraordinary people and my leadership will reflect that,” he said.
As far as Pride, Kriseman, who drafted the first proclamation naming June Gay Pride month in St. Petersburg when he was a councilman in 2003, simply said that the impact of the event on the city had been “huge” and noting that he has attended and when appropriate ridden in the parade every year since its inception.

He said he would march if he were elected mayor.

Ford did not attend the debate, but both men were asked what additional things St. Petersburg could go to become even more friendly to the LGBT community.

Foster said that he had surprised some people by supporting initiatives like passing a domestic partner registry and a human rights ordinance in St. Petersburg.

“I can’t think of a better city than St. Petersburg when it comes to showing respect for diversity,” he said. “I will continue to support anything that treats people with respect and shows the world that our city is committed to equality.”

Kriseman said he hoped that the city’s marketing department could be called upon to do a better job of promoting St. Petersburg as a gay-friendly destination for visitors.

“I don’t think we are doing anything along those lines right now and I think we should be,” he said. Kriseman also said he though it was very important that the mayor march alongside the gay community in the annual Pride parade.

Ford, who spoke to Watermark during the St. Pete Pride festival in late June, said she supports the LGBT community and plans to be a part of the parade if she’s elected mayor.

“Certainly, it would be nice to have the mayor of St. Petersburg march in the parade,” she said. “I always have and I will when I’m mayor. I think it’s important to recognize everyone in the City of St. Petersburg.”

All registered voters living within the city limits of St. Petersburg can vote in the Mayor’s race. If a candidate receives a majority of the votes (50%+1), he or she wins. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the names of the two candidates receiving the most votes will be placed on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.

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