White, plus lesbian


St. Petersburg's District 6 is, according to voting patterns, the most liberal, most progressive in all of Tampa Bay. Then why have bigotry and homophobia surfaced so prominently in the current City Council race?

In the latest bizarro world turn, an African-American woman questioned the sexuality of the only white candidate in the race, Darden Rice, during a town hall meeting Rice held in Midtown, then stormed out of the meeting and criticized her for being a lesbian. "God's not down with that," controversial activist Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter reportedly told the St. Petersburg Times.

Rice has not made a campaign issue of her sexuality, nor has she hidden it, answering Lassiter's question by acknowledging she is a lesbian.

"The attacks are something that I was prepared for. The intensity of the attacks has surprised me," Rice said. "Politics, especially in District 6, are not for the faint of heart."

Once described as a "hired assassin" by former St. Petersburg and Pinellas County official Rick Dodge, Lassiter was accused in a lawsuit of contributing to the suicide of Janet Gifford-Meyers, a lawyer for Pinellas County. Lassiter had been hired by Lockheed Martin to provide grassroots support in its effort to keep its contract to run a government program for workforce training. She is well-known to politicos in St. Petersburg for her organizing in the African-American community. The lawsuit accused Lassiter of running a smear campaign against Dodge, Gifford-Meyers and the county's handling of the contract. Lassiter denied that, and also denied threatening Gifford-Meyers' life. Her family maintained that threats and pressure from Lassiter contributed to depression that led to her barbiturate overdose in 2001. Dodge later dropped his lawsuit against Lockheed; Gifford-Meyers' family reached an out-of-court settlement, and their attorney said last week he could not discuss its terms or Lassiter's involvement in the case.

"I'm aware of her background," Rice said. "I think her actions are pretty despicable and they speak pretty much for themselves. She did her damage."

Lassiter, who reportedly denied being hired to ask Rice about her sexuality, could not be reached for comment by the Planet.

Rice earlier was criticized by African-Americans for being white and — in the opinion of at least one of her opponents — not capable of representing black constituents should she be elected. Despite largely skewing liberal in its voting, segments of the African-American community have a large social conservative streak on issues such as homosexuality.

Rice said she thinks the latest episode, coming just days before last Tuesday's primary balloting, may have strengthened her support among people who dislike bigotry. (This issue of the Planet went to press before the primary.)