St. Petersburg – The Sunshine City made history in 2013 when its residents elected two more openly gay candidates to sit on its City Council. Darden Rice and Amy Foster handily won their campaigns in November in districts 4 and 8, respectively, and join sitting district 5 councilmember Steve Kornell who won his campaign back in 2009 behind the dais.
Of course, there are five other members of the St. Petersburg City Council, and those five straight elected officials are allies to the LGBT community. But having three, openly gay, seated officials is monumental for the city, and for Florida.
That’s why Watermark chose Rice, Foster and Kornell as our “Remarkable People of 2013.”
We gathered the three elected officials, all of whom are partnered, to chat about what this means for the future of Florida politics and their take on its historical significance.
WATERMARK: What do you think it means for politics in Florida and the country to have three openly gay elected officials on one council?
DARDEN RICE: This says something special about St. Pete. On the campaign trail this past year it was often said that it’s not really a big deal. I emphasized that people will look past labels and will elect us to work for everyone and represent on issues relevant for all citizens. All of that is true, but let me say here, it is a big deal; as Vice President Joe Biden would say, “It’s an effin’ big deal.”
Visibility saves lives and strengthens communities. There is a strong link between representation of gays and the political and legal rights afforded to gays. When you look at a map of our country, and even a map of the world, you can make a connection between LGBT representation and the advancement of human rights in those parts of the world. With that kind of global context, we should never take human rights achievements for granted. We still have much more work to do.
AMY FOSTER: We have made significant progress, but there is still work to be done for all groups that have faced oppression and marginalization in our country. I’m happy that people chose the most qualified candidates and focused on the whole person than one small part of my identity. Steve, Darden and I are all very different individuals with varied backgrounds and interests and we bring unique skill sets to the table that will help move our city forward.
STEVE KORNELL: It certainly is a milestone. This local election demonstrates how out of touch our leaders in Tallahassee are with the will of their constituents, because the state does not have crucial statewide protections for LGBT citizens. Clearly the overwhelming majority of St. Petersburg citizens do not feel that someone should be fired simply for being a member of the LGBT community. It will be nice when our state leaders reflect this sentiment in state law.
Is it frustrating that people are celebrating three gay officials when the community is also trying to say we’re just like everyone else?
SK: I do not find it frustrating at all. Election night was a joyous night and we should celebrate. We are celebrating that as the straight community has gotten to know us they have come to realize that the LGBT community is just like everyone else. A candidate should be judged by his or her qualifications. That is worthy of celebration.
DR: Sometimes we don’t get to live long enough to cross the bridges we try to build, and yet here we are crossing one of them. How we would love for Harvey Milk to have lived to see his legacy in action in this country.
So the fact that three gay people have been elected to represent the broader community in St. Pete says a lot. The community has embraced us and knows I will represent and work with everyone. I think it’s worth celebrating that St. Pete is a city that elects people based on character and stance on issues.
Media outlets tend to reference the sexuality of elected officials, which can be tiresome. How do you hope the media refers to you as a representative of St. Petersburg?
AF: I hope the media will focus on my service and the issues at hand. I hope the media recognizes the vastness of diversity represented. I set out to be a voice of the people-that includes all citizens of St. Petersburg. I am particularly passionate about bringing forward issues that impact at-risk groups and want to make sure our policies reflect the needs of working families. I hope I will be known as a champion for all families in this great city.
DR: I think the sensationalism in media is more of a symptom than a cause, so I try not to take it personally when I’m gratuitously identified as openly gay whether or not it is relevant to the issue at hand. The media is starting to get it better these days, but there is still a tendency for reporters and editors to shoehorn a person into a story and will use whatever handy phrase or stereotype to fit their narrative. And if you are LBGT, well, that’s the one-dimensional narrative that may be used to paint you.
SK: The media would never talk about an “openly straight” candidate or official, and I believe the same respect should be afforded to LGBT candidates and officials. Campaigns should be about issues, not about who you date.
When did you know you wanted to seek public office?
SK: It was never one decision, or one moment. I would say it was more an evolution towards running for office. It certainly frustrated me when I felt that elected leaders were ignoring their constituents on a host of issues, including gay rights and funding for children’s services.
AF: As a child or even young adult, I never thought about politics as a way to make a difference in people’s lives. But policy (especially local policy) impacts our lives greatly. I have spent my life dedicated to helping people and solving problems so this is another way to extend that work and make a lasting impact. I’ve spent the majority of my career focused on gender equity and in recent years it became very clear to me that women bring both different perspective and skills to the table.
DR: My mother was my first inspiration. I was raised in North Carolina. When I was 12, Mom took me with her on the volunteer campaign trail, giving me a taste of the value of volunteerism, civic participation, and public service. When St. Pete City Council Member Karl Nurse and others asked me to consider a run in 2005, it resonated as the right path for me.
The St. Petersburg City Council was remarkably LGBT friendly in 2013. Do you think there is still more the LGBT community can teach the other members of the council, and the City of St. Pete?
DR: There is a lot to be learned. Just because we achieve equality in one area does not mean we are done. We still have significant challenges in St. Pete with racial issues and inequities caused by poverty. As for LGBT issues, we still have a way to go to fully realize equal rights for gays and lesbians, as well as embracing the transgender community.
SK: The current City Council signed the Pride proclamation and also voted 8-0 in favor of the Domestic Partner Registry that was enacted last August. It is important for everyone to know that this City Council has been very supportive of the LGBT community and we could not enact any legislation without the votes of the straight members of City Council. I am appreciative of my colleagues’ support in this area.
In the new year I hope to see our city become more inclusive of transgender people and enact stronger policies that are supportive of our transgender citizens.
AF: There is an African author who did a TED talk on “The Danger of a Single Story” and it is a good reminder that we cannot possibly understand someone or a group based on a single facet of their life. I am gay and I am a woman. I’m a mother, employee, sister, daughter. I am not a native of our city all of these things and many more are part of the lens I look through when experiencing the world. One thing I know for sure is this stories change people’s lives. I’d love for people to spend time getting to know each other-all across our city and help facilitate safe spaces for dialogues about things like this very question.
This is Watermark’s “Year in Review” issue. What is your fondest memory of 2013?
SK: On my rare days off, I enjoyed time with my partner, Bobby, and our two dogs, Harvey and Hedwig at the Fort Desoto dog beach. I was also very proud to see the city spend an entire year looking at redeveloping 34th Street South and branding the area the “Skyway Marina” District.
DR: I have had many fond moments, all involving family. It is bittersweet, but I have lost both of my parents. I miss them and think of them every day. Mom always encouraged my activism. My father always encouraged me to think big. He knew I was running for city council, but did not survive his battle with cancer to see me finish. I often felt that they were with me in spirit.
AF: My fondest memory over the last 12 months can’t be distilled to one memory but there is a common thread. I have been blessed to meet some of the most amazing people while on the campaign trail. I have been invited into people’s homes, trusted with their stories of successes and trials, and shared special celebrations at churches, neighborhood meetings, and businesses. On election day, I was at a polling location and a woman approached me and told me about herself. She shared she was overcoming brain cancer and her concerns for her neighborhood in South St. Pete.
She held my hand the entire time she talked to me and left me with these words, “I’m voting for you because I believe you will remember people like me when you make decisions.” That is a special memory and I will work hard to live up to those expectations.
Finally, do you have any words of encouragement to cities that may not have much LGBT support on elected boards/councils?
AF: Don’t be afraid to get involved and use your voice. I firmly believe that stories change people’s hearts and minds. If you are interested in running, find a mentor to reach out to and ask about their experiences.
DR: Keep pushing forward. The more people push forward, the closer you get to the tipping point. There is momentum. Cities around the country are changing. 2013 was St. Pete’s year. Each city has its own tipping point in the context of history. If you are in a place where you can’t wait long enough for that, move to St. Pete!
SK: The LGBT community needs straight allies. Things will only change when people are willing to ask their elected officials to do the right thing, and to educate them as to why LGBT friendly policies are important. If there are any LGBT people out there considering running for office, I am always happy to meet and help them in any way I can.