As the first openly gay candidate to run for office in Pinellas County, Darden Rice knows best that when you want something bad enough, you have to work hard to get it. Although she received heat for it at first, Rice’s trailblazing run for office ushered in a wave of other LGBT political candidates in Pinellas County.
Now campaigning for her second term as the Chair of St. Petersburg City Council, Rice is more determined than ever to continue her trailblazing trend. Her dedication to the city’s environment, transportation and neighborhoods has positively impacted the growth of this booming and beautiful city that we all love.
OUTCOAST had the chance to sit down with Rice to find out what she loves about St Pete, her plans for the future of our city, and her tips for collaborating in a divided political climate.
Thanks for sitting down with me. Let’s start off with your youth. Were you always into politics?
I grew up in Charlotte, NC. My parents divorced when I was twelve. After my the divorce, my mother took me to the local campaign headquarters for governor Jim hunt, who was then running against the infamous Senator Jesse Helms who was anti-everything: anti-gay, anti-civil rights. If having a Senator like Jesse Helms doesn’t politicize you at a young age, I don’t know what will.
How did you wind up in Pinellas County?
My father moved back down here to be near his family after the divorce. The Rice family moved to Pinellas County in the 1950s. So, I started spending summers with my dad. I had one foot in Charlotte and one foot down here.
When it came time to go off to college, I decided to come down here.
Where did you go to school?
I started at USF Tampa and took a little break. I finished up at Eckerd College in St Petersburg with a degree in American Studies, which is a great liberal arts degree for working and communications in politics.
Since everything is imbedded in culture, the degree was great in terms of understanding politics and how policies affect everybody.
I know environmental issues are a top concern for you. When did your advocacy work in this area begin?
As a college student, I had been active with the Florida Public Interest Research Group (Florida PIRG), working to ban off-shore oil drilling along Florida’s gulf coast. So, I’ve been doing that type of work since I was 19.
What did you do after college?
When I finished at Eckerd, in 2000, I joined the Sierra Club and worked for about seven years for their energy and global warming program.
How has your environmental work helped your political career?
Working on environmental issues opens up the door to so many other issues, because it connects to land use, transportation, campaign finance reform. Eventually it connects to housing and education.
So, when I ran for city council for the first time in 2005, although I challenged an incumbent and lost, it gave me a great chance to work on a broad spectrum of issues to a wider community. I was very successful at not being pigeonholed as a lesbian or as an environmentalist, but rather, I was someone who demonstrated a strong grasp of the issues and was a quick learner.
I lost a close race, but I stayed engaged. People saw that I was not just someone who shows up to run for office and then disappears, but that I really meant all of those things I said.
How did you keep from being pigeonholed as a the first openly gay candidate?
I was out, but my being gay wasn’t made an issue until the newspapers wrote about it. Still, I acknowledged it and then pivoted right back to the issues, because that was really what people cared about. I mean yes, being gay means I understand discrimination in my own way and I understand how fairness is important to everybody, but at that time, what people really wanted to hear about were solutions to affordable housing. They wanted to hear about neighborhoods, public safety. People wanted to understand who I was personally to make sure I didn’t have an agenda, but as soon as they knew I was working for everyone, they got over it made acceptance easier.
What have you learned since being in office that you didn’t know before?
That’s a good question!
Public engagement has to be done right and, no matter how messy the process is in the beginning, it will always bring about better outcomes. However, no one can predict exactly what that outcome will be. I say this as someone who’s a little bit of a control freak at times. It’s an incredible process to watch. I welcome and look forward to what other people have to say about the ideas I bring to the table, because that diversity and thought of opinion makes all of those thoughts better.
The other thing I’ve found as a leader, is that I’m pretty comfortable at taking criticism. I don’t need to have all of the answers. Sometimes people deliver blistering criticism and you have to be comfortable in your own shoes to take it, because sometimes there is a germ of truth that can help provide insight. Some people deliver criticism better than others, but It’s my job to take it. By the time people get to a podium or an office, they’re angry. There’s something that hasn’t been solved and they’re bringing it to your desk because they’re a little put out. I have learned to slow down, breathe deep, and work with them versus against them.
Speaking of anger, how can politicians help bring people together at a time when there’s so much hate in this country?
People want to be connected to a core sense of hope and promise. Hope might be overused and sound like a campaign slogan, but hope is still important. It’s still vital. And hope is very profound.
As politicians and Americans, we have to be careful not to place blame. For example, in in the city, we’ve been dealing with a sewage infrastructure crisis. When I talk to people about the crisis, I start off by saying, “Look, infrastructure problems don’t happen overnight, but I’m not here to blame or pontificate what happened in the past. We can talk all day about how we got here, but I’m here to talk about how we’re going to fix it. Let’s pivot toward solutions.” People always seem relieved by this approach.
What have been your key wins?
My focus issues are the environment, transportation, and neighborhoods.
On the environment, I was an integral voice in getting curbside recycling in St Pete. In fact, I worked on that before getting elected. When I was president of the league, we were the ones who injected that into the campaign.
I’m also the founder of our sustainability committee. The committee has presided over a comprehensive look at the city’s operations to address preparation for climate change, protection of clean water, and energy efficiency. My goal is to drive the environmental ethic into the DNA of the city. That way, no matter which city council member or mayor is in office, the focus on the environment remains embedded into the city’s DNA, forcing the city to think about sustainability and resiliency when planning.
On the topic of transportation, it’s my second year chairing the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA). Under my leadership, we got the diesel buses out of Williams Park. I’m a champion of our new bus rapid transit system, our first federally-funded transit system in years. We were trailblazers in purchasing all electric buses. The federal government saw our commitment and federal grants came forward to help us.
I’ve also been a strong champion of economic development and our South Side Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) plan to end poverty. It’s something we really have to get right.
Tell me more about your plans to end poverty. Where do we start?
We need to look at where the money goes. We spend millions of dollars focusing on what we can do to treat the symptoms of poverty rather than the causes.
To start, we can create jobs that put people above the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).
The CRA is a way to drive about 130 million investment dollars into the south side over thirty years. What is different about our plan, is that it’s not just for buildings and redevelopment, but it’s also for “wrap around services”, like job training, child care, pre-K education and support to families. It’s a very well-thought-out plan.
Have your key focus issues changed from when you first started campaigning in 2005?
You always have to be receptive and open to changing issues. From the day I first got elected, the city knew that the big issue with St Pete was, “We are a great city and we are redeveloping, but how do we redevelop?” That question touches a number of different issues. How do we protect the environment? How do we invest in infrastructure? How do we make sure that the prosperity is shared?
I’d say that the environmental issues have always been my calling card. What I see now is that voters are looking for strong leadership in that department. It’s not something that’s marginal anymore. Now, the environment is a driving issue at the forefront. Leaders who are good on that are seen as mainstream, strong leaders.
What are your favorite things about living in Pinellas County and St Pete?
St Pete is a city on the rise. What I think is so cool about St Pete is that we are just the right size. We are the kind of town people can move to, and within about a year, find their tribe.
In St. Pete, you can get a group of dedicated people to work on something and really accomplish something that has a ripple effect that travels beyond the borders of St Pete to have a much bigger effect. It’s what gives St Pete it’s vibe, it’s authenticity.
We’re also known for our diversity and have a great quality of life.
How do you and other city council members help to keep St. Pete so wonderful?
My role as a city council member, and a city leader, is to be on the lookout for ways to support the city’s authenticity and also know when to step out of the way.
As leaders, we’ve really got to be smart. We need to be smart with our economic development plans and in the way that prosperity is shared. And we need to develop in a way that strengthens our schools and provides affordable housing.
I want St Pete to be the city where someone young, or reentering the job market, can find a place to get a two- or four-year training degree and then find a job in one of our gross market sectors, whether it be health care, financial services, or business ownership. I want St Pete to be the place where people can find the way to get those jobs and then stay here to work.
When you aren’t campaigning what are you doing?
I give a lot of time to my work on council with no regrets. I love this work. When you have a growth mindset, there’s always something to learn. Whether it’s about policy, people, or process. So, this never gets old for me, even on the rough days, although those are few and far between.
Outside of policy work, I love biking, getting out in nature, reading, and writing. I’m a little bit of an introvert, so reading recharges my batteries.
Do you see yourself running for anything above City Council?
Is there anything people might not know about you that they should?
I absolutely love this work and every day I wake up thinking about what I can do to do better.
I’m also a fighter. I stick with things, even if it’s an uphill battle. I’ve even been fighting breast cancer this year and I’m proud to say, I’m doing very well.
I heard about that. I didn’t want to pry too much into your personal life, but since you mentioned it, how are you doing?
I’m doing very well. I’m fortunate. I’m responding very well to treatment. I don’t mind people knowing. In fact, given that it’s Breast Cancer Awareness month, I think it’s important that I share. I’m the “1 in 8”! I want to emphasize that it’s really important for women to get themselves checked out.
To learn more about Darden Rice, or to support her campaign, click here.
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