Hotspots Exclusive Interview with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman

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Last November, attorney and former Florida House member Rick Kriseman was elected Mayor of St. Petersburg over incumbent Bill Foster. At that time, it was evident that the city’s residents wanted a more progressive voice and lots of changes to occur on a city-wide scale.

In Mayor Kriseman’s first 100 days alone, he has used a lot of the goodwill he earned during the election cycle to his advantage by repairing the City’s relationship with the Tampa Bay Rays, who were considering a move out of St. Petersburg and into Tampa. He has also worked to find a way to repurpose the inverted pyramid located on St. Petersburg Pier, a building that was originally slated for demolition.

Of course, Mayor Kriseman is very supportive of LGBT rights, which is almost a complete about-face from the attitudes of his predecessor Bill Foster. For a city that is as accepting as St. Petersburg is, citizens wanted leadership to match, and it looks like they now have it.

I was honored to speak with Mayor Rick Kriseman in an exclusive Hotspots interview.

Why do you like living in St. Petersburg?

This is a great city, from the diversity of our residents and the welcoming nature of our community, to the arts and culture that we have. What I really like about St. Petersburg is that we are a big city with a real community feel. So you have all the amenities, culture and sports that you get in big cities, but what you don’t get in big cities is the opportunity to travel the city and still get chances to run into people you know. I think that’s one of the things that makes us really special.

The HRC’s “Municipal Equality Index” ranked St. Petersburg only the eighth most diverse city in the state. That was something that surprised me.

Yes, we were disappointed to learn about that. I think some of it has to do with having certain processes formalized…not that we didn’t have them already in place, they just weren’t formal offices. We’re going to announce our LGBT Liaision position in June, and that will get us more points on the index, but that’s something that multiple people were already doing in informal capacities all over the city. It’s just…we’d already done it. But we’ll have one person whose specific job will be to deal with those issues now.

What do you see the “LGBT Liaison” doing as they interact with the St. Petersburg LGBT community?

First off, I envision the community will know this person well and know that they can turn tomayor_1 them for any LGBT issue, such as discrimination, whether that complaint is public or private. In turn, this person will be reporting directly to me, so there will not be a chain of command in order to get an issue dealt with and to have me aware of it. I can then find out what’s going on and have any issue fixed.

The Liaison will be coordinating the city’s participation in community functions, like for example St. Pete Pride. I’d love for the police department and fire department to march in the parade. The Liaison can help make that happen. They can be the point of contact for other events, like the Film Festival. They’re going to find ways for the City to participate actively in the community.

How would you like to see St. Pete Pride expand and grow during your term as mayor?

I think what they’re planning this year, expanding Pride and separating the Parade from the Business Expo, is a great chance [for Pride to grow]. When they were on the same day, I think both of the events tended to get lost in each other a bit. By having these events at separate times, I think it allows for greater attention to be paid to both of them.

I think the people who have organized Pride have done a great job with it. I don’t think I’d recommend that they do anything different. I think they’ve done an incredible job with it, comparing the first year to the tenth year. Just think back to last year with all the weather issues.

I remember them.

And with all the thunderstorms and with all the downpours…people stayed! Quite frankly, you don’t see that in a lot of other events. The festive atmosphere that the organizers have created, where people wanted to go back out and have more fun, you don’t see that very often; that’s really unique.

You have a family member who is gay, namely your sister. Is she one of the main reasons why you are an ally to the LGBT community?

Hmm. [pause] I mean, does that play a part? Sure. It’s not the main reason. I think the main reason is simple fairness, believing that everyone should be able to love who they want to love. It’s personal to me because of the people who are close to me, like my sister who is a lesbian, and my former roommate in college who was the best man when I got married, but it’s also personal to me because it’s just the right thing to do. It’s easy to do when it’s the right thing to do. I don’t feel like I ever had to have an “evolution” on this topic.

I joined the Tampa Bay Business Guild back in 1992 or 1993. When I joined, I also started advertising in the Alternative Yellow Pages, and I think I was one of only seven or eight law firms that even advertised back then. I may have been the only straight lawyer to advertise. Even back then, when attitudes were so different, my thought was, “Well, why wouldn’t I join the LGBT chamber? Why wouldn’t I advertise?”

This is a question I phrased to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn last month: How important is it for Tampa Bay to start its own commuter rail service?

It would be huge. But I think people need to be clear that in addition to light rail service, the current plans are also about enhancing public transportation. It’s about better bus service, high-speed ferries, improved pedestrian walkways and bicycle trails. All of these things are key to improving transportation in Pinellas County. It isn’t just “light rail.” That’s just a piece. It’s a lot more than that. But it’s all about improving the quality of life here and enhancing economic development.

Should Pinellas County pass the sales tax referendum in November so this plan can be put into motion?

Yes, we should pass it. If we don’t do it in Pinellas, it’s not going to happen in Hillsborough. And if we don’t do it, we put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage not only when compared with other cities in Florida but with cities across the country. We need to be able to compete with Charlotte and Portland and Seattle, and to do that we need to do a better job with public transportation. The younger generation wants this, it demands it, and they’re going to seek out places that have sufficient public transportation options and ignore the places that do not.

Tell me about St. Petersburg’s best-kept secrets. Which landmark and which restaurant do you feel are St. Petersburg’s best-kept secrets and why?

I’m a fan of St. Petersburg’s public arts collection. It’s not a single landmark, but the public arts collection…I don’t think people realize just how extensive the city’s collection is and how accessible it is. It’s spread out all over the city.

As far as a restaurant is concerned, one of my favorite places to eat in St. Petersburg is this place off 49th Street, Mid Peninsula Seafood. I always get the blackened salmon sandwich.

If you’d like to read more about Mayor Rick Kriseman, visit stpete.org/mayor. You can follow him on Twitter as well at @Kriseman.