“I’ve been the ghostwriter at City Hall for 30 years,” says Robert Danielson, marketing director for the city of St. Petersburg. In that role, one of his duties is to write proclamations on subjects like National Drinking Water Week.
But the LGBT Pride Month proclamation, which Mayor Rick Kriseman read at a June 12 City Council meeting — that one was different.
Not only was it the longest Danielson had ever written, with 16 “whereas’s” instead of the usual five, its litany of pro-gay policies and programs represented a sea change in St. Pete city government. Among the announcements: the appointment of the city’s first-ever LGBT community liaison — a post which will be held by Danielson.
He still can’t talk about it without tearing up.
“To be recognized and to be able to stand there at City Council in front of this giant pride flag,” he says, wiping his eyes, “was a moment that I never thought I’d be able to see in my career or in St. Petersburg.”
Born in New Hampshire, he caught the St. Pete bug early on, during a family visit in the eighth grade. A decade or so later, after studying journalism at the University of Maine, he returned, first working for a few years at the St. Petersburg Times
, then getting a part-time position with the city in 1984 as publicist for the Pier.
He’s been in the marketing department since 1987, and after years managing it, was named director of the department this year by Mayor Kriseman. He was out “from day one — I couldn’t live any other way.” But even as as the move to LGBT equality was growing in momentum elsewhere, St. Pete and its leadership were lagging behind.
“The word that comes to mind is perserverance,” says St. Pete Pride founder Brian Longstreth of Danielson, who was part of the first meetings to create the parade in 2003. “To have to go through what he’s gone through on a professional basis for so long, and now… you got a mayor doing everything he can except marry people.”
It is truly remarkable what has changed for St. Pete’s gay community with the Kriseman administration.
Danielson says one impetus for that change was the Municipal Equality Index, the influential measure created by the Human Rights Campaign to assess the gay-friendliness of America’s cities. To the dismay of city officials, Tampa came out with a higher score than St. Pete in the 2013 ratings. It’s safe to say the results will be better next year no matter what the mayor does, since the 2013 analysis was done before Darden Rice and Amy Foster were elected to City Council (bringing the total number of openly gay councilmembers to three, including incumbent Steve Kornell). But while Kriseman definitely sees the economic benefits of making the city more gay-friendly, his support is more than just lip service: He’s been a strong proponent of LGBT rights ever since he was on City Council himself, when he was the first councilmember to sign a Pride proclamation.
And consider what’s in this month’s proclamation. In addition to citing measures already taken by the city — Human Rights ordinance in 2002, domestic partner benefits for city employees in 2010, domestic partnership registry established in 2012 — the document also announces Danielson’s new role and the newly created LGBT liaison to the police department, Lieutenant Markus Hughes; cites Kriseman’s signing of the Freedom to Marry Statement, a bipartisan declaration by U.S. mayors; adds gender discrimination to the city’s Non-Discrimination and Harassment Policy; supports development of the new LGBT Welcome Center; praises the economic benefits of St. Pete Pride (an estimated $10.5 million for the local economy); and declares that the Pride Flag will be flown outside City Hall this weekend.
And that’s not all. Kriseman made news this week with the announcement that not only would he be the first mayor to walk in a St. Pete Pride parade (not including Tampa Mayor Buckhorn), it’s also the first parade in which a contingent of city employees will take part, and the first in which the city’s police and fire departments will be represented as participants, not just as security detail. This also marks the first year that the city will help pay for that security, to the tune of $35,000.
No wonder Danielson keeps tearing up. Even more touching: The day of our interview, about a week after his new role was announced, he found a card on his office chair from Kriseman congratulating him and adding, “I couldn’t think of anyone better for that position and have complete confidence in you.”
At present, the job seems to be intentionally vague; most recently, he’s been helping St. Pete Pride Executive Director Eric Skains navigate the thickets of ADA regulations. To some extent, he’ll be doing what he’s always done; he was the guy, after all, to whom the gay community turned when they wanted to talk to City Hall about things like parades and proclamations — and he was the one who had to return and sheepishly tell them, no dice.
He’s had good working relationships with the six previous mayors he’s worked for, and counts Rick Baker and Bill Foster as personal friends — albeit personal friends who disagreed profoundly about his right to, say, marry his partner of 13 years, Ed. Cassidy, former marketing director for the Times. (Cassidy is now working for Taubman, the big mall marketing firm.)
“I’ve often been said to work in the shadows,” Danielson says. “You have to have the skill to compromise.”
But now he’s out of the shadows big-time. And he’s come up with a new city slogan:
“The sun shines here.”
For the first time in his life as a St. Petersburg city official, that statement is true all the way around.
Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the year Robert Danielson was named St. Pete's marketing director. That error has been corrected.