Jul 20, 2023 - Politics

Training for potential LGBTQ+ candidates in Florida attracts Tampa Bay residents

Illustration of an LGBTQ+ flag pin on the lapel of a business suit.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

University of South Florida business professor Kell Cameron never saw himself going into politics. The South Tampa resident is a self-identified nerd who loves research and teaching.

Yes, but: A few years ago, a student approached him at the end of a semester and told him that he was the first openly gay teacher he'd ever had.

  • "It's that moment when you realize how important representation is," Cameron, 35, told Axios.
  • Researching ways to get involved, he came across the LGBTQ+ Victory Institute, an organization that trains queer candidates and campaign staff on how to run for office.

Why it matters: Florida is one of several states in recent years that have passed laws restricting LGBTQ+ rights. One way to combat that slate of policies is to have more queer and ally voices in office, said Elliot Imse, executive director of the institute.

Driving the news: Victory is helping build a slate of LGBTQ+ candidates who can usher in new and representative leadership at the state and local levels. The group held a training over the weekend in Orlando, attended by more than 40 people from Florida and across the country, including Cameron.

  • The boot-camp-style training covered topics such as how to fundraise, build a campaign team and write a stump speech.
  • The institute picked Florida as the location for one of its more immersive trainings because of the political climate, Imse told Axios.

Reality check: The 160-member Florida Legislature has just two members who are openly part of the LGBTQ+ community, said state Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby, a Democrat from St. Petersburg who identifies as queer. The other is Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens.

  • Tampa voters just elected their first openly gay city council member this year. Mayor Jane Castor, the city's first openly gay mayor, was elected in 2019.
  • St. Petersburg City Council has had several openly gay members over the years but currently has none.

Zoom in: Among the training sessions was a panel of LGBTQ+ elected officials who shared their experiences in politics including Rayner-Goolsby, who is in her second term as a state representative. Among the lessons she's learned and advice she had for trainees is not to be pigeonholed as just a queer candidate.

  • "I'm so much more than just this one thing," she said. "All those intersections of my identity inform the way I think about policy."
  • She also said it's important to know how to take care of yourself, especially in places where LGBTQ+ rights are under attack. For Rayner-Goolsby, it's spending time with family, going to therapy, and picking her battles.
  • No matter your identity, she said, you'll still get opportunities to shape policy in impactful ways.

What they're saying: The panel of elected officials was Cameron's favorite part of the weekend. "There's such a strong community," he said. "It created a sense of optimism I really appreciated."

  • He wants to get involved at the local or state level but is waiting to see how the 2024 elections shake out before he settles on a plan. Still, he called the training "one of the most transformational experiences of my adult life."

The big picture: "It's unfortunate what's happening," he said, "but there is a light at the end of the tunnel when we stand with our community and our allies."

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