ST. PETERSBURG – The candidates are upping their attacks as the Democratic primary for District 70 gets closer.
St. Petersburg business owner, and openly gay candidate, Dan Fiorini has called Tampa Bay area lawyer CJ Czaia out for hiring Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter as a campaign consultant.
“[This Czaia]guy has paid her $1,000 and put her on the payroll. This guy is a complete fraud, a complete fraud,” Fiorini says. “She goes on about how ‘Homos ain’t with God,’ and she absolutely tore apart Darden Rice and Steve Kornell when they ran for City Council.”
Lassiter, an African-American activist in St. Petersburg, has made many anti-LGBT and homophobic comments about several openly LGBT candidates in the past. Most notably in 2005, Lassiter confronted Councilwoman Darden Rice, at the time Rice’s first run for City Council, about her sexual orientation.
“Word has it on the street that you’re a lesbian,” Lassiter said to Rice at a community meeting. When Rice answered that she is, Lassiter responded, “God ain’t down with that,” and then stormed out.
Rice ended up losing that election, but won her bid in 2013. Rice, along with city council members Steve Kornell and Amy Foster, all being openly gay, has led Lassiter to nickname them “the honeycomb caucus.”
Czaia hired Lassiter as a political consultant for his run for District 70, paying her $1,000 in July.
“I created a firestorm it seems like,” Czaia says. “I hired Momma Tee as a very strong, sometimes seemingly out of control, individual, but she is very beneficial in advising me and my campaign about the African-American community, the background of the community.”
Czaia says that even though Lassiter is providing advice on the African-American community in south St. Pete, it does not mean he follows everything she says.
“I’m going to listen to every community, I’m going to hear all sides, but I am not going to compromise my values. If Momma Tee makes a statement to me that is offensive, then I’m going to make it clear to her what I think and why we all need to stand with the LGBTQ community,” Czaia says.
In a previous interview with Watermark, Fiorini claimed Czaia recently moved to the district just to run for the House seat, a claim Czaia denies.
“I’ve been in and out of the St. Petersburg area since the late ‘70s. I’m a graduate of St. Petersburg Junior College; I attended the college for a year. I lived in South St. Pete for years. I think to say that I’ve been in the district for just a few moments is ridiculous. Before he even thought of moving to Florida I was in the district. No, that’s an incredulous, irresponsible statement,” Czaia says.
Czaia has received an endorsement from the Stonewall Democrats, an organization to which Fiorini is a founding charter member.
“I got the endorsement because I’m a legitimate candidate and would be a terrific representative. Even if I lose, I’m not leaving the community. I’m here. My better half and I have worked for years in working to make sure that we have a better community – and when I say community, it’s the Bay area” Czaia says.
The endorsement from the Stonewall Democrats came after meeting with each of the candidates and hearing their stance on issues of LGBT equality, says Jane Morris, Vice President of Political Action for the Stonewall Democrats. She chairs the endorsement committee.
“We were impressed with CJ,” Morris says. “He has an effective record for starting an organization for Latino and African-American groups. He has worked with LGBT couples on immigration issues. He’s just been there, in the trenches, more than anybody it seems, more than Dan, and we don’t even want to talk about Wengay Newton.”
Newton is a former city councilman in St. Pete who is running for District 70 as well.
Morris says she is aware of Lassiter’s involvement with Czaia’s campaign and admits to not being a fan of Momma Tee, calling her a “homophobe,” but understands how Czaia can benefit from her council.
“He hired her after our endorsement,” Morris says. “He turned to her as a resource for the Black community, and I hope if he has issues with equality issues or LGBT issues that he will turn to us. That’s the bottom line. We can’t control that she has done valuable work in the African-American community.”
Fiorini cannot understand how the Stonewall Democrats can continue to support Czaia after hiring someone who has been a vocal opponent of the LGBT community.
“This is absolutely incredible to me after everything Momma Tee said about Darden Rice and Steve Kornell, and Stonewall has endorsed him?” Fiorini says. “You can’t at the same time say I am for LGBT rights and then hire a homophobe to run your campaign in Midtown. That’s absolutely incredible and the lack of leadership at Stonewall has caused this to happen; this is incredible. Susan McGrath ought to be ashamed of herself.”
McGrath is the president of the Stonewall Democrats and referred Watermark to Morris for comments.
“This is a four-county election and you need to talk about electability and money, and we were not impressed by Dan,” Morris says. “We endorse CJ because we think he is the most qualified.”
The Democratic primary for District 70 is Aug. 30.