Watermark’s Most Remarkable People 2017: Darden Rice, St. Petersburg City Council Chair

“When I first ran in 2005, I was openly, unapologetically attacked for being gay,” Darden Rice, the first out candidate for public office in Pinellas County recalls. “But today… more and more, the public sees our issues as everyday issues that any American faces.”

That’s in part because of candidates and public officials like Rice. In November of this year, after a successful term in which she served as St. Petersburg’s City Council Chair, she garnered 72.64 percent of the vote to win her bid for re-election. That’s an impressive 41,914 votes to her opponent’s 15,786.

“I’m recognized for my leadership on transportation, on environmental issues, and I haven’t let myself be marginalized as a one-issue gay candidate,” Darden says. “And I think it’s important for gay, elected officials not to let themselves get marginalized.”

Rice, who earned the endorsement of prominent Florida Democrats like newly re-elected St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Congressman Charlie Crist, has had a busy term. She served as the chair for both St. Petersburg’s Energy, Natural Resources & Sustainability Committee and of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority Board.

She did so while also serving as the vice-chair of the Housing Services Committee, and while working with the Budget, Finance & Taxation Committee, the PSTA Executive and Personnel Committee, the PSTA Planning Committee, the Tampa Bay Regional Transpiration Authority and Forward Pinellas.

All that, it should be noted, while spearheading a successful campaign for re-election after publicly announcing her cancer diagnosis. “Being told that you have cancer is something that nobody wants to hear,” Rice says. “There’s never a great time to get diagnosed with cancer, but it was really not a great time.”

“But I’m very fortunate,” she continues, “and I am in complete remission. I’m going to stay focused on my treatment to make sure it stays that way. I’m unbelievably grateful. People have been so supportive and so wonderful and I think that’s been really helpful for me, having a positive mindset. I’m eating more healthily, exercising more and just being more mindful of things I need to do just to stay on a healthy track.”

As focused as she is on her own health, so too is she focused on St. Petersburg’s. With the federal government moving away from its commitment to a cleaner environment, she believes that it’s up to cities and metropolitan areas to serve as “the center of innovation [for] addressing environmental issues.”

“We simply cannot wait for state or federal action,” she says. “There’s no cavalry coming into save us, so it leaves cities like St. Pete to be proactive and to put plans in place for how we can operate more sustainably. And that sustainability lays the groundwork for our resiliency. Cities have really been the great laboratories of change and innovation because of state and federal inaction.”

“The environment, the quality of our water, the quality of the air we breathe,” Rice says, “the extent to which we are prepared for the impacts of a changing climate… it’s not just the subject of a local Sierra Club meeting. It is central to big-time economic concerns; in terms of how prepared our cities are for a changing environment. We’ve got to be ready.”

Rice’s dream, she says, is “to really drive sustainability and resiliency-planning into the DNA of the city, so that years down the road, no matter who’s in the mayor’s office—no matter who is in City Council—that this will be the new way of doing business.”

With a remarkable term and a fresh victory behind her, Rice is free to focus on exactly that. “I was thrilled with my race, that we won by such an overwhelming number,” she says. “It felt like a vindication of the direction that we’re heading in. We still have some work cut out for us for the next four years, and I’m very excited about that.”

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