Will Gulfport elect an openly gay mayor or a straight, gay-friendly mayor?

By : Greg Stemm
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In an election year fraught with unusual circumstances and candidates, one local Tampa Bay area election has put a difficult decision to the voters of Gulfport on whom to elect as their new mayor. One candidate, the incumbent, is a well-liked progressive straight mayor with undeniably strong support for LGBT issues and the challenger who is an openly gay woman and a respected business owner in the community.

According to the latest census about a third of the residents of this small Tampa Bay area city of about 12,500 residents identify themselves as LGBT. Gulfport has long prided itself in taking lead roles in the fight for LGBT rights and equality. It was the fourth and smallest city in the state to pass a Human Rights Ordinance, the first in Pinellas County to do so, and it is to date the most comprehensive in the state. It was the first city in Pinellas County to pass a domestic partner registry and it has taken strong official positions in support of marriage equality and ending workplace discrimination. The city’s library hosts the state’s only publically supported LGBT resource center. Many Gulfport residents take pride in being a role model to other communities on how gays and straights can work effectively and even joyfully together.

If Barbara Banno, the woman challenging current mayor Sam Henderson is elected, she would be the first openly gay candidate elected as mayor of Gulfport. She would also be the first lesbian mayor of any city in Florida. Gulfport has elected a number of openly gay candidates to other offices, and in fact Banno served as a city council member in the past.

On the other hand, Henderson won his election to become Gulfport’s current mayor over a candidate who was a seventh generation resident of the city in an election that many saw as a challenge between what some call “old Gulfport,” with its more conservative old fishing village history, and “new Gulfport,” with its strong LGBT presence and progressive nature. Many members of the LGBT community supported Henderson in his original bid, and it was that support that put him into office. Henderson has also served as a city council member.

Both candidates are Democrats and have sought the endorsement of various Democratic institutions. One of the most important is the Stonewall Democrats, an organization which states it is devoted to advancing equal rights for all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Its webpage also states that “as a Democratic organization, SDPC will work with the Democratic party and support fair minded leaders and candidates who support our mission. To the surprise of some, the Stonewall Democrats have endorsed Henderson over Banno.

“The Stonewall Democrats believe that Henderson deserves another term in order to bring several ongoing projects to completion, including improvements in both storm water and waste water systems. While Henderson’s early political opponents ridiculed him for being an environmentalist, recent circumstances have made his education and knowledge in that field crucial to his public service,” says Beth Fountain, vice president of political action.

Banno expressed extreme disappointment with the Stonewall Democrat’s decision.

“The decision of the Stonewall Democrats to endorse only my opponent is discouraging not only to me, but to any future LGBT activist who actually puts themselves directly in the line of fire as a true leader and now sees that sacrifice could be overlooked when it matters most,” Banno says.“But I won’t be stopped. I will continue to represent ALL of Gulfport – LGBT or not – in a way that truly places our community’s best interests above finding the easier way to go.”

There are some residents of Gulfport who think that Banno has placed too much emphasis on her sexual orientation, particularly in a city which is often hesitant to put any labels on people.

“Gulfport is a city light years ahead of its time in the realm of LGBTQ rights. Why, then, all of the continued emphasis on sexual orientation as if that is important to a candidate’s qualifications as an effective mayor here in Gulfport,” Tiffany Taylor, a gay married resident of 16 years who has an 11 year old daughter, says.

Paul Ray is an openly gay board member of the Gulfport Merchants Association and the president of the Gulfport Democrats. He and his husband are supporting Banno, but not because of her sexual orientation.

“My husband is a Gulfport native and, after he introduced me to this community, I fell in love with it and want nothing more than what is best for it,” Ray says. “But with that in mind we take a long view instead of just looking at short term issues or solutions. We fully intend to stay here for the rest of our lives so we want a candidate who will work on the issues and problems affecting our future. While we like Sam and agree he is a gay ally, we both really feel that Barabara is the best choice to do that.”

Gulfport has been locked in a sometimes contentious political debate over storm water runoff that an aging sewer and runoff system in St.Petersburg is inadequate to handle. In some serious rain events the issue has resulted in raw sewage from St.Petersburg being dumped into Boca Ciega Bay via the Bayou, resulting in beach closures and fishing restrictions in Gulfport which prides itself on having a long history as a waterfront community

Whatever Gulfport decides, Henderson says its message of acceptance and inclusion will be showcased to the outside world, which seems important to him, his opponent and the voters of Gulfport.

“If Barbara wins I can see the historical significance of a gay woman leading our city and it would speak volumes about our community’s unquestioned willingness to put a gay person in that high level of political importance. If I win it says that residents of Gulfport have moved beyond sexual orientation as any kind of relevant issue in an election. Either way it seems to me that everyone in Gulfport wins and we can be very proud of what we are saying to the world,” Henderson says.

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