Crowd came to praise Stanton

A few opponents were outside City Hall for the ex-city manager's appeal of his firing.

Published March 24, 2007

LARGO - What a difference three-and-a-half weeks can make.

When Steve Stanton arrived Friday night to ask the Largo City Commission for his city manager job back, he didn't duck in a side door.

He walked to City Hall's front door looking every bit the celebrity in a black suit, pink dress shirt, plaid tie, dark sunglasses and a shy grin.

Supporters shouted "He's here!" and "Good luck, Steve!" as they hopped on benches to get a better look. They parted like the Red Sea to let him pass.

"It's very kind," Stanton said after entering City Hall and encountering a throng of reporters, including national media outlets CNN and Newsweek and a crew from Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. "It's nice to see people coming out to show their support."

Stanton's evening would only get tougher with the City Commission looking unlikely to reverse its 5-2 decision of Feb. 27 to fire him. The vote came a week after he announced he was undergoing hormone therapy to prepare for gender reassignment surgery.

But among those attending Friday night's hearing, supporters for Stanton far outnumbered opponents in the crowd of fewer than 300.

It made for a distinctly different atmosphere than Feb. 27. That night, there was an even bigger crowd, but it was more divided, with opposing sides facing off outside an overflowing commission chamber and on City Hall's lawn.

For Stanton's Friday night appeal, members of Equality Florida roamed around wearing pink shirts which said "Don't Discriminate." Members came from across Florida, setting up a table to distribute pink shirts and paraphernalia. Some wore green arm bands marking them as peacekeepers. But they weren't needed.

One pink-shirt wearer, Lyn Zerin, 61, of Largo, said she came to support Stanton.

"It's not only an important issue just for Steve but for all of our human rights, which we're slowly taking away from people," Zerin said.

The pro-Stanton crowd was so ubiquitous, it was hard to find anyone who supported the commission's decision to fire Stanton. Far from City Hall's doors, a half-dozen commission backers lined Highland Avenue with signs such as "Honk, If You Want to Fire Stanton." But rarely was a honk heard.

Closer to City Hall stood Rev. Ron Sanders, pastor of Lighthouse Baptist Church. He's best known in the past month as the speaker who told the City Commission that Jesus would have voted to "terminate" Stanton.

Even as he was outnumbered, Sanders stood firm, saying Stanton's plan to become a woman was an abomination of God, and that he could prove it through Scripture.

"There are only a couple of cases that God says is an abomination: homosexuality and dressing as a woman," Sanders said.

Just 10 feet away, Nadine Smith, 42, executive director of Equality Florida, was far more relaxed than a month ago when her attempt to distribute pamphlets at the first city commission meeting led to her arrest and spending nine hours in the Pinellas County Jail.

"It's a different air," she said. "It's a community coming together rather than being divided."