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Fort Lauderdale Mayor's Race Heats Up With Two Gay Candidates

Fort Lauderdale Mayor's Race Heats Up With Two Gay Candidates


Remember the Fort Lauderdale mayor who wanted to spend $230,000 on a "robo-toilet" to cut down the number of men who have sex with men in public restrooms? His name is Jim Naugle, and after 18 years in office, come spring 2009, the homophobic mayor will bid adieu to City Hall. Two gay men are seeking to take his place and, in aligning themselves with Barack Obama's bid for the White House, hoping to make Florida a blue state in 2008.

Remember the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., mayor who wanted to spend $230,000 on a "robo-toilet" to cut down on the number of men who have sex with men in public restrooms?

His name is Jim Naugle. He's been mayor since 1991. New term limits in Fort Lauderdale mean that come spring 2009, after 18 years in office, the homophobic mayor will bid adieu to City Hall.

This sets the stage for what promises to be an interesting race to elect a brand-spanking-new mayor.

Presently, there are four men vying for the office. State representative Jack Seiler is looking for a new elected position because he's being term-limited out of his seat. Steve Rossi, a local attorney best known for his advertisements on bus benches, is actually using "Sit on My Face" as a campaign slogan!

They're the two straight guys.

There are also two gay guys -- Earl Rynerson, a local businessman and relative newcomer to Fort Lauderdale and its political scene, and longtime city LGBT activist Dean Trantalis, who is an attorney and a former one-term city commissioner.

They both consider themselves Democrats and they both say they're mayoral candidates who happen to be gay. And that's about the extent of their similarities -- politically, at least.

Rynerson, 56, moved to Fort Lauderdale seven years ago after living in San Francisco for most of his adult life. He went to the University of Kentucky on an ROTC scholarship, graduated as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, went to navigator's school to gain expertise in air refueling, and was part of the fifth U.S. aircrew to land in Saudi Arabia about a week after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. He is a vet of both Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

"I wasn't out, but I wasn't in," Rynerson says of his stint in the Air Force and the subsequent 13 years he spent as a reservist. "For me personally, being gay [in the Air Force] was not an issue."

Rynerson is taking that same attitude into the mayoral race. While he was outraged by Naugle's remarks about LGBT people, Rynerson emphasizes that he is not running as a "gay candidate" but rather as "an individual with a strong background that can help a lot of constituencies. I fought fraud in San Francisco, have kept a small business profitable over the last six to seven years, and I'm knowledgeable about fiscal issues."

His concerns are mostly economic.

"When someone who is mayor makes stupid comments, I dismiss him," he says. "His backward comments aren't going to affect my pocketbook. When the mayor and the commissioners don't manage the city's money it affects all of our pocketbooks. Gays should be as upset about his lack of control as his ridiculous comments."

Rynerson says he is disgusted that the city manager "earns more money than all the national figures but the president" and that the city budget has increased dramatically.

It seems he is also dismayed by what he considers LGBT population's lack of involvement. From his perspective, the Naugle uproar "galvanized the community for a few months and then kind of evaporated."

"I wish the community in Florida was as mobilized and strong as I remember it was in San Francisco," he says. "I don't see any one group or person taking charge and promoting the interests of the gay and lesbian community."

He doesn't consider the LGBT vote to be effective and is under the impression, from folks inside and outside the community, that "gay people generally don't vote."

While Rynerson is a registered Democrat, he hasn't liked any of the leaders either major party has offered the voters in quite a while. He says he will "probably vote for [Barack] Obama" because he is so scared John McCain will have a heart attack and "some nut-job woman from Alaska will have to take over."

Jim Naugle's words and deeds were also what spurred Dean Trantalis to declare his candidacy.

"Last year our city reached the brink of tolerance with regard to the conduct of our mayor," Trantalis explains. "He's the kind of mayor who mouthed off about working people, he unabashedly denigrated the African-American community, and he finally found his favorite spot -- the heart of the lesbian and gay community."

Trantalis was part of the uprising that occurred in Fort Lauderdale. "I need to return to the city commission as its mayor and make the changes to city government that have been sorely lacking for many years,". he says. "I was hoping that some of the announced candidates would take on that mantle, and it didn't happen. I hope to be the champion of not just the gay community but of all people -- working people, tourists, the elderly, students."

A seasoned elected official and community organizer, Trantalis feels the city deserves so much better: "We just never had the experience of having what true leadership should be. That's why I decided to run."

A member of the city commission from 2002 to 2006, Trantalis knows his way around city politics and sees his involvement in gay activism as an absolute plus.

"The gay community will vote when it feels it has a cause," he says. "We have come out strongly in presidential and congressional elections. The community is now beginning to show a record of involvement, and each time we achieve a measure of success it empowers the community to assert the strength it holds."

Echoing Barack Obama, Trantalis's platform "begins with change." He wants the relationship between City Hall and the people he represents to be a partnership: "I want to work hand in hand with the people rather than create a wall. We need to collaborate and cooperate."

He wants to focus on supporting the tourism and marine industries and to try to make sense of the area's real estate industry. But before any of that can happen, Trantalis says there must be a change in leadership.

"In the past our leadership has been contentious and dwelled in conflict," he says. "I'm hoping my leadership can bring consensus and a combined vision."

He wants to work more closely with the police and fire departments to imrpove morale, which has been low because of past budget negotiations. He contends that the last three contracts have been imposed on these city employees and that "unless we're able to work together, we're never going to be able to have a sense of working as partners to give the city a better quality of life."

Trantalis thinks the Naugle debacle and the statewide Proposition 2, which would ban same-sex marriage in Florida, have really energized LGBT citizens and their allies. "We [Fort Lauderdale and all of Broward County] have a progressive electorate. Prop. 2 will die a quick death here," he says. "That's not to say the same thing will happen in the rest of the state."

Prop. 2 needs 60% of the vote to pass. Trantalis says it was put on the ballot to energize "otherwise stagnant conservative voters to vote yes on the proposition and while they're at it, vote for John McCain."

Trantalis thinks Obama will eke out a victory in Florida. Given the latest polling numbers, his prediction could well come true. While he was originally part of Hillary Nation and feels "a little disenfranchised as a result of the primary process," Trantalis is firmly in Obama's camp.

"As Democrats, we need to put aside those types of feelings and get behind a single candidate. We can't sit on our hands and when the opposition is elected say 'woe is me,'" he says. "Republicans are good at winning elections, but they've never learned how to run government."

While both Rynerson and Trantalis think they're going to win, it seems the candidate who aligns himself more closely with the Democratic national ticket has a better chance of making it to the mayor's office, even though this is a nonpartisan race.

There will be a primary February 10. If one of the four candidates in the race gets 51% of the vote, he will take the office. If no one garners that percentage, the top two vote-getters will go at it all over again, leading up to a final vote on March 10.

What's abundantly clear is that at this point in the race, there's a 50-50 chance that the victor will be a gay man.

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