Outgoing Mayor Rick Kriseman reflects on 8 inclusive years leading the Sunshine City

ABOVE: Mayor Rick Kriseman in the Grand Central District. Photo by Dylan Todd.

Rick Kriseman was sworn in as St. Petersburg’s 53rd mayor in 2014, just six months before the 12th annual St Pete Pride. Like the city itself, the celebration was ready for change.

That’s when organizers split its traditional festivities in two, moving St Pete Pride’s street festival to its own day and launching a night parade. In another first, the celebration also welcomed Kriseman as St. Petersburg’s first sitting mayor to march.

It wasn’t the first time he had made history with the organization, or the community it serves. As an attorney, he joined the Tampa Bay Business Guild in 1992 – now the Tampa Bay LGBT Chamber – where he became the organization’s first non-LGBTQ keynote speaker.

He also supported the LGBTQ community in other ways, particularly as an elected official. Kriseman served on the St. Petersburg City Council from 2000-2006, signing a 2003 proclamation recognizing Pride Month in St. Petersburg for the inaugural St Pete Pride after then-Mayor Rick Baker refused, and worked on amending the city’s Human Rights Ordinance to include LGBTQ protections.

Kriseman also worked toward a more inclusive Florida in the State House of Representatives from 2006-2012, and as mayor worked to ensure the sun shined on all who live, work and play in St. Petersburg before and after his re-election in 2017. During his tenure St. Petersburg has received a 100% score in the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Municipal Equality Index, which measures how inclusive a city has become. In 2014, he inherited a score of 66%.

That year, Watermark asked Kriseman a series of questions ahead of his first St Pete Pride as mayor – among them, what he would say to those who don’t approve of his support of the LGBTQ community.

“I’m not changing,” Kriseman answered – and in two terms, he never did.

Ahead of St. Petersburg’s historical election Nov. 2, Watermark sat down with the term-limited mayor at St. Petersburg City Hall to reflect on his eight inclusive years as the city’s leader.

Surrounded by awards and commemorations from organizations like Equality Florida, St Pete Pride, the Tampa Bay LGBT Chamber, Watermark and more, he reflected on his enduring relationship with St. Petersburg’s LGBTQ community.

WATERMARK: What are your earliest memories of being called an LGBTQ ally?

RICK KRISEMAN: My college roommate and the best man when I got married, who now lives in New York with his husband, was talking to me about the Tampa Bay Business Guild in 1992. He said, “there’s not a lot of lawyers that are members, let alone straight lawyers.”

I had just started my own law practice and it was a great way to grow my business and represent a community that really needed representation. I ended up going with him to their next dinner, had a great time and met a lot of really wonderful people like [St Pete Pride co-founder] Brian Longstreth. I joined and became very involved, so my direct involvement in the community was then.

I guess I became an ally earlier, if you want to say that. My sister’s gay. I remember when I was visiting her one time in Atlanta that she took me out to go hear some live music from this group that she said was really good. I hadn’t heard of them before – it was the Indigo Girls. I think it was probably the first time I was in a gay bar and after we left it was like, “Well, that was cool. They were awesome.”

Technically I am, but I’ve never seen myself as an advocate. I’ve always just felt like this is the right thing to do and done what’s natural and what’s right, which is to treat people with dignity and respect. People should be allowed to love who they love and be who they are, which to me was just second nature.

What led you to practice law and ultimately move to politics?

In some ways, the answer is the same. I have always represented people that needed help. That’s what attracted me to being a lawyer, being able to know what the laws are so that you can protect yourself and your family, but also to help others.

It’s also what attracted me to politics. You have the ability to do things that make people’s lives better. I describe it to kids nowadays – they always ask me what it’s like being mayor – that I feel like I’m Santa Claus. They look at me like I’m crazy but I say that he has the best job because he gets to give kids gifts, which makes him feel good because he’s done something that’s made them happy.

I feel the same way. I get to do things as mayor that change people’s lives and makes them happy, hopefully. So when it does, it makes me feel like I’ve got the best job in the world.

Where do you think you’ve been able to make the biggest difference in public service?

It’s a great question, because as you come to the end of your time in this job, everybody asks what you think your legacy will be and a lot of times people focus on things. The expectation becomes that I’m going to say, “Well, I helped build the St Pete Pier or the new police station,” something like that.

What I’ve always hoped my legacy would be is that I changed the culture of the community that I live in, that I made St. Petersburg a more welcoming, tolerant, diverse, equitable community where everyone – no matter the color of their skin, their religion, their sexual orientation, who they love, who they are, what their economic status is – has the same opportunity to live a good quality of life.

I do think we’ve changed the culture somewhat here in St. Pete. Our last score before I got elected and started working on it was a 66% in the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index. We’ve had a perfect 100 every year since. We raised the flag for Pride Month above City Hall, and when I was on council I had to sign the proclamation recognizing Pride Month because our mayor wouldn’t do it. I walked in the parade because our mayor wouldn’t do it and I’ve obviously done that as mayor.

So what I’m hoping is that I’ve made it so natural, and such a part of who the city is, that anyone who comes after me can’t undo it. That this will always be who St. Pete is. That St. Pete will always put the Pride flag up for Pride month, the mayor will always sign the proclamation and will always walk in the Pride Parade and the TransPride March.

That we’ll always score a perfect 100 on the MEI, we’ll always have an LGBTQ liaison for the city and for the police department. That’s a cultural shift and that’s what I hope I’ve been able to accomplish, not just during my time but as something that goes beyond it.

It would be a lot to undo.

I think if the next mayor didn’t raise the Pride flag – I say he, because it’s going to be a he in this case – I think he’d catch holy hell for not doing it, and rightfully so. The LGBTQ community is a huge part of who St. Petersburg is, and I take great pride – no pun intended – in knowing that we host one of the largest Pride parades in the country, certainly in the state of Florida; even larger than South Florida and Key West, which I think is awesome. It’s probably one of the things I’m going to miss the most, leading the Pride parade and dancing my way through it.

You have a long history with St Pete Pride. What was it like signing the first Pride proclamation and did you ever imagine it would be in its 20th year?

No. (Laughs.) First of all, it was an honor to sign it and again, a no-brainer. When the mayor refused to do it I just said I was going to. It was the right thing to do, we needed to recognize the community here.

To watch the growth of this every year, from what started as a very small parade to what it’s now become with a full month of activities in 2021, is just so remarkable. In some ways I thought they almost created a problem for themselves, because they set the bar so high this year that the community is going to want them to do it again, on top of the parade. It was creative, it was innovative and it took a horrible situation with the pandemic and found a way to allow our city and in particular our LGBTQ community to celebrate. It was awesome.

You were the first mayoral candidate and first mayor to walk in the parade. What do you remember about those days?

The energy from the crowd was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I always felt like the crowd lifted me up and carried me the entire route. I mean it was just amazing, and it’s been that way every year. I love the parade and I do kind of dance through it because there’s just this energy and love. It’s hard to put into words.

It’s also interesting because I was in Boston for a conference of mayors during the city’s Pride parade and the mayor at that time was Marty Walsh, who’s now Secretary of Labor. He invited any mayor who wanted to do so to walk in the parade with him, so I did. It was a big parade but the energy wasn’t the same. There’s just an energy here when you go to our Pride parade, and to me it’s emotional.

A lot of times by the time the parade’s over, I’m exhausted but I’m elated, and there’s a welling of emotions that you just feel. There’s just this love that permeates for the whole route.

You also participated in St Pete Pride’s first TransPride March, honoring the most marginalized members of the community. Why has it been important for your administration to highlight the trans community?

I think the first year that we had the TransPride March was in some ways the most emotional, because I think it was the most impactful for the trans community here in St. Pete – because you’re right, this is the most marginalized part of the LGBTQ community. The most susceptible to violence, especially the trans community of color and women.

It was important because I don’t like to just talk. I think action has to follow and support your words, and so if I want to talk about St. Pete becoming a city of opportunity where the sun shines on all who come to live work and play, that means the sun has to shine on our trans community too. Walking in the parade casts the sunlight, and it shines a light on that community that’s far too often overlooked and denigrated.

You’ve spoken for Trans Day of Remembrance, Trans Day of Visibility and other events highlighting the LGBTQ community every year. What message do you have for those who are concerned that mayoral support might stop in St. Petersburg?

My goal all along has been to try and make the shift in who we are as community sustainable beyond my time. That’s why I think it was so important that we made a big deal of events every year, to create that expectation and make it difficult for that to not occur again or go back to the way it used to be.

I think elections matter and they have consequences. If people like what I have done with these changes, that’s because they voted for me and put me in a position where I could do it. We have an election coming up and it matters who you vote for, and I’ve been vocal in who I’m supporting.

I’m supporting Ken Welch because I believe that he is best positioned to lead the city forward, continue the things that have been important to me and to do things that I haven’t been able to do. I have great confidence that he will continue the work that I’ve done with the LGBTQ community and that he won’t let that slip. Certainly if he does, I’ll be in his ear, because I think it’s too important.

We’re one community, we’re supposed to be one humanity, and when we stop treat people differently, based solely on how they see themselves or who they love, we’ve got a problem.

You created the roles of LGBTQ liaison for the city and police department. Why was that important to you?

Aside from it being part of the criteria for improving our score in the MEI, if there’s no one in a position to help someone when they’re being discriminated against, then having a Human Rights Ordinance to provide protections is impotent. What I knew from my experience with the community over the years is that people needed to feel comfortable in who they were speaking to, that they weren’t going be judged and that what they had to say was going to be taken seriously.

I felt like we needed to create a position to help people if they are being discriminated against or just needed somebody who was willing to listen to them in city government. It made sense to give the community somebody they can feel confident and comfortable with, which is Jim Nixon for the overall city and Major Markus Hughes for the police department.

Do you feel that those positions have been a success?

I think so. I think Markus and Jim have both done a great job in representing the city and the community. Markus just got promoted again and is a great cop. I also got to marry him, which always sounds funny when I say it. (Laughs.) I performed the marriage ceremony.

You also performed the first same-sex marriage at City Hall in 2015.

Bob and JoJo!

What was that like?

Oh, what an honor. To be able to do it on the day it became legal in Florida was really cool. I was touched that they asked me to do it and I was really proud to be the first.

My sister had to travel from Atlanta to Washington to get married, and she held a reception back in Atlanta that my wife, our kids and I went to, but we didn’t get to see her get married. So to be able to do something in my community – in my city for people who live in my city and wanted to get married in my city – with their family here to celebrate with them, it was just awesome.

What are your hopes for St. Petersburg after your term?

Cities are like big, huge tankers – and you don’t get to the place your tanker is in overnight. It takes time to get to where you are, and you don’t get there by turning on a dime. Tankers don’t turn like that.

It’s a slow, gradual turn, so I have always viewed myself as in some ways the captain of this tanker. My job was to get it turning in the direction of equity, opportunity, diversity, tolerance, love, kindness and compassion, and I think we’ve got it turning in that direction.

It’s going in that direction now, so my biggest hope for St. Petersburg is that we keep moving that way and don’t start turning backwards. That’s always the big fear. Truthfully I think it’s the fear of every mayor, and probably every elected official, that all the hard work and the things they’ve done to try and positively impact their community could get undone.

What are those things to you?

So much of what my administration has tried to focus on, and what I’ve tried to focus on, isn’t necessarily the things that a lot of politicians do, like buildings and infrastructure. It isn’t that those things aren’t important, but they’re not as impactful as when you focus on people.

That’s what we’ve tried to do. Government should be used to lift people up and to change people’s lives for better to provide opportunities and let people live a life filled with happiness, love and kindness. That’s what I’m hoping will continue.

We’re always going to have to work on keeping hatred, discrimination and tolerance at bay. We saw as a result of the 2016 election, where we had a president open Pandora’s box and say “it’s okay to be a bigot, it’s okay to be hateful, hurtful and discriminatory; anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist,” that we have to be vigilant. We always have to be vigilant.

Your administration has supported the LGBTQ community for eight years. What message do you have for the community as it ends?

I want to say thank you, and I’m going to try and say it without getting emotional, because I’m starting to. (Pauses, tearing up.) The love that I have felt from this community has really been amazing. It’s lifted me up and it’s helped me keep going. There are times when this is not the easiest job in the world … and whenever I have someone in the community come up to me and say, “thank you for everything you’ve done for us,” I want to say thank you to them, for everything they’ve done for me.

I’m a better person because of the community and the love that’s been pushed my way. It’s been incredibly powerful. These have been the best eight years of my life, without question … being mayor is the best job in politics, but for me I think this has been the best job I’ve ever had, period.

It’s because of the people in the city, but this community in particular. There’s been a relationship that we’ve had that’s been really special.

LGBTQ activists, colleagues and leaders throughout Tampa Bay also reflected on Mayor Rick Kriseman’s impact on St. Petersburg. See what they had to say here.

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