Catching up with St. Petersburg’s first gay councilman

By : Aaron Alper
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Steve Kornell became the first openly gay elected official in 2009 for St. Petersburg City Council. Since that time, Steve has become a champion for not only the LGBT community, but for human rights, artists, musicians, writers and youth culture. In a sense, he is the antithesis to the cynical-politician stereotype.

When confronted with the idea that coming out at 32 and being the first elected gay official in St. Pete at 42 is remarkable (skipping the “gay adolescence” many late-bloomers have via the disco or, these days Grindr), Kornell simply laughs.

“The great thing is now there are kids who are going to grow up and miss things because they’re in the closet,” he says.“We still have work to do, but that path is now finally becoming available.”

Kornell will be running for city council again this year and is reflective about how much has changed in the five years he’s been in office. Back when he first ran, Kornell admits that his being openly gay was a “gamble.” In the beginning, he got the obligatory hate mail.

“I didn’t even get as much as I thought I would,” he says.“I knew the city was ready. One of the great experiences I had was I when I came out and I was the supervisor at Childs Park and everyone supported. I just knew I had to be ready. I also received huge support from Equality Florida and the Victory Fund.”

The real gamble for Kornell came with how the media would treat him. “You only have a small amount of name recognition when you run for city council,” he says.“So if the media wants to make it an extraordinary thing that you’re gay and not focus on any other aspect of the person, they have a chance to do that.”

Luckily, the St. Petersburg Times(now the Tampa Bay Times) was “extremely fair,” he says. “I was presented as a well-rounded person who happened to be gay. And that’s how we are. We don’t walk around saying ‘I’m going to my gay car to drive to my gay job.’”

(The Times has since lashed out at Kornell for his position on retaining the Tampa Bay Rays at a cost to taxpayers. “The only people who really vehemently opposed me were people who had a stake in the Rays,” he says).

Being gay did help streamline Kornell’s fundamental beliefs. “I am a champion for human rights, period. I don’t see it as political. It isn’t liberal or conservative,” he says. “How is not extending rights to a certain person a political position? If you think that, you need to think about what you’re doing because you can have all the greatest economic policies, a budget, potholes fixed, but if you’re discriminating against any part of your citizens, you’re not going to have a good city.”

Kornell’s outspoken activism has served him well, for the most part. He stopped a virulently anti-gay citizen from being appointed to a committee by speaking out at a non-televised agenda committee review.

“The city did a great job on the Human Rights Campaign index except for one [measurement]: health benefits for transgender people,” he says. “I am determined to see that happen as soon as possible. I tried and got shot down last year, but the budget is up for review. Whether it’s politically popular or not, I don’t care.”

Still, Kornell’s risks taken in fighting for what he believes over what’s necessarily popular have given him numerous municipal victories outside of the LGBT community, including passing a “conflict minerals” issue regulating cell phone manufacturers and controversial public advocacy for musicians and bar owners in St. Petersburg via his fight against a proposed $500 fine for those abusing noise ordinances downtown.

“You need to understand you have a voice,” he says.“I tell young people that all the time. I am always listening. A young person walking in with a radical idea could be the next Bill Gates. I am not going to turn that away.”

Former State Rep. Phillip Garrett, who has no party affiliation, filed last month to run against Kornell.

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