Baker action: Opponents of former mayor Rick Baker sound off on his equality record

By : Samuel Johnson
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ST. PETERSBURG – We will go forward; we’ve come too far to go back. This was the overarching sentiment of some 20 LGBTQ advocates at a press conference in Saint Petersburg May 11. They gathered on the front steps of City Hall to voice their concerns about ex-St. Pete mayor, Rick Baker, and his announcement that he is entering the city’s mayoral race for this year.

Ed Lally is a St. Pete resident who works with Equality Florida. He was on hand for the event, brandishing a “Rick Baker Never” sign. Lally didn’t mince words in his assessment of Baker. “He’s not a man for equality for the whole community. I don’t trust the guy and would never vote for him. … His prior actions with the LGBT community would rate a big fat F,” he says.

The failing marks for Baker are based on what some would deem his antagonistic and dismissive track record with the LGBTQ community in Saint Petersburg. Those at the event were quick to point out that he never recognized the city’s Pride festival or marched in the parade.

Executive director of St. Pete Pride, Erik Skains, reiterated a dual importance of the Pride Festival. He cited the roughly $20 million in revenue that the Pride festival injects into the local economy. On a cultural front, Skains emphasized the intrinsic universal importance of St. Pete Pride. He says the Pride festival is held for everyone in the LGBTQ community but especially for those who have been bullied, ridiculed, shunned, denied employment, kicked out of their homes or have been made to feel less than equal. Skains prosaically says St.Pete is important because, “It’s always someone’s first Pride.”

Florida Consumer Action Network executive director and Stonewall Democrats president Susan McGrath helped organize this event. She says the LGBTQ community of St. Pete is worried that a Baker mayorship would turn the clock back on equality. McGrath drove that idea home when she noted, when Baker was mayor, it was the “most unwelcoming and repressive” period in the city’s history. This may be hyperbole, Jim Crow segregation aside, but it is perceived by some as a deeply repressive period of the 21st century.

Jan Lund, a member of the Stonewall Democrats in St. Pete, stood in opposition to Rick Baker on the steps of City Hall. Lund is also a US Navy Vietnam veteran. According to him, he went through the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era. Lund says there are many LGBTQ military veterans in St. Pete who are glad the armed services now allow openly LGBTQ people to serve. It’s Lund’s belief that Rick Baker has not evolved past a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality. He stands behind current mayor Rick Kriseman, who he feels is on board with LGBTQ equality.

This sentiment of inclusion and equality isn’t just resonating with St. Pete straight and LGBTQ residents. There are nearly half a million visitors to the city each year. Visitors are vital to the city’s tourism. Since Kriseman has been in office, an LGBTQ Welcome Center has opened up on Central Avenue – one of only two in the state of Florida. For the year 2016, St. Pete boasted a score of 100 on the Municipality and Equality Index, the measure of laws, policies and services which make up the inclusiveness of an area for the LGBTQ community. Todd Richardson, Pinellas Regional Coordinator for Equality Florida, elaborated. “Florida’s economy depends on being able to draw top talent to our state. And drawing top talent requires having a high quality of life,” he says.

Whoever is in the mayor’s office, they will have to build bridges and work in conjunction with the city council members; three out the eight who are openly gay. Steve Kornell, one of the three city council members, wasn’t at the event but had a clear message to whomever is mayor. He says he wants to push progress and that going back is foolish. Moreover, he affirmed that the rights of all St.Pete’s residents will be protected, including those of the LGBTQ community. These are some progressive LGBTQ milestones which are already in place: things like workplace protection, an LGBTQ liaison and transgender health benefits. However, Kornell says there is still work to be done.

The Saint Petersburg mayoral primary election with be held August 29 and the general election will be on November 7.

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