Meet The Florida Legislature’s First Openly Queer Woman of Color

Supermajority Education Fund

November 16, 2020

Last Tuesday’s election delivered historic victories for many candidates across the country, including Michele Rayner-Goolsby (D-70), a civil rights attorney and community activist, who is the first openly LGBTQ Black woman to be elected to the Florida Legislature. 

Rayner’s victory in Florida’s 70th House District—which spans four counties across the Tampa Bay region—was essentially secured in August when she won a competitive open primary race. 

“Y’all, it just hit me,” Rayner tweeted, three days after her August primary win. “I’m the first openly Black queer woman ever elected in Florida-at any level. Our team was led by a Black woman. It was anchored by women and women of color. We won because we defined ourselves for ourselves. Brb- I’m crying now.”

Rayner is a lifelong Pinellas County resident and a committed community activist. She first became a local public figure in 2018, following the murder of 28-year old Clearwater resident Markeis McGlockton, an unarmed Black father of four was fatally shot in a convenience store parking lot by Michael Drejka, a white man. Drejka evoked Florida’s controversial ‘Stand Your Ground’ law to claim self-defense, which ignited protests. Rayner attended protests and rallies in McGlockton’s name, where she met his surviving family. At the family’s request, Rayner represented McGlockton’s family as their legal counsel. Drejka was ultimately sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Florida judge nearly a year after the deadly encounter.

“In that moment, I understood how the law and the policies we write impact people’s day-to-day lives,” Rayner told LGBTQ Nation in an interview this August. Rayner has also represented clients in various other civil rights cases in Tampa Bay, including the case of Barbara Pinkney, a 70-year-old Black woman who was tased by a police officer in her Bradenton home last year in their search for her grandson, who had a warrant out for his arrest.

Rayner, a staunch advocate for Florida’s working families, is ready to—as the late civil rights leader and US House Representative John Lewis put it—make “good trouble” in Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature.

Supermajority News reached out to Florida Representative-Elect Michele Rayner to discuss her background, the value of having community activists running for office, and her plans for making good trouble in the Republican-controlled state legislature.

What was your initial reaction when you learned you’d won your open primary race in August?

Our nation, and particularly Floridians, have lived through the neglect by our elected leaders in failing to manage the COVID-19 global pandemic and the abuse of power by our law enforcement on Black people. To win during this time of crisis was a reckoning by the voters of House District 70 and folks across this country who believed in my campaign’s vision for a state that prioritizes hard-working Floridians over the powerful. This indicates that Floridians are looking for bold leaders to advocate for solutions to the problems we face every day, like lack of access to affordable housing and healthcare, good-paying jobs, and quality public education for our students. Prior to running for office and since being elected to serve, I have tremendous hope that we can and will build a better Florida that works for everyone. 

What motivated you to run for office?

I ran for the Florida House because I believe that this chamber is the People’s House. The issues being discussed should align with the needs of those who elected us to serve. Unfortunately, we’ve seen firsthand the prioritization of partisan politics over the people. I ran because we are in a pivotal moment in our state and nation’s history, and we need unapologetic leaders who will fight to ensure we move the needle towards progress. 

What do you think the value is of having community activists — like yourself, and Cori Bush for example — run for elected office? 

As an organizer and former legislative aide in Florida’s Capitol, I know firsthand the importance of [having] conversations with those we serve in developing people-led policies. This type of leadership demands that we listen and be unafraid to take on tough issues like affordable housing, public education, quality healthcare, and environmental justice. 

As an attorney, I have represented families in some of the toughest social justice and civil rights cases right here in Pinellas County, like Markeis McGlockton, an unarmed black man killed in a Clearwater convenience store parking lot. I have stood with our residents in moments where the community decided to fight back and push for change, and I will continue that work as a legislator in Tallahassee. We need more leaders unafraid to get into “good trouble” in elected offices across the country at every level of government. 

Tampa Bay knows you as a staunch advocate for criminal justice reform, racial justice, and civil rights protections. Can you tell Supermajority News readers about your ideas for reforming Florida’s criminal justice system, as someone with a keen understanding of how that system operates?

District 70 has one of the highest rates of youth incarceration in the state. As an attorney, I’ve fought to ensure that all residents are treated equitably by our criminal justice system, especially our most vulnerable who, too often, are not served by our current system. In 2018, more than 60% of Floridians voted for Amendment 4 to restore the right to vote to 1.4 million returning citizens. Since then, the Florida Supreme Court ruled partisan attempts to further obstruct returning citizens’ right to vote by legislating outstanding fines mandatory to restore voting rights as unconstitutionalblocking the attempt to institute a modern-day poll tax. Returning citizens who have paid their debt to society deserve equal access to our democracy, which includes the right to vote. I am committed to protecting Amendment 4 and will also file legislation that addresses youth incarceration and diversion programs to ensure that our children are given every chance to thrive and reach their potential.

Many people feel neglected by politicians and have lost hope in the electoral process. What would you say to those who don’t believe that their vote matters? 

When we all vote, we can actualize the power of our voices in electing progressive leaders to fight for us in their elected offices. When we do not vote, we continue to see more of the same derelict leadership in the Legislature. We must ensure an informed electorate to vote the whole ballot for folks and causes with shared values. It truly is up to us.

I urge you to not lose hope in the process because this fight will not be won in a day. It’s our progressive and consistent work of organizing and mobilizing our communities that will lead us to the change we all deserve. I plan to work with issue-based advocacy groups and mobilize communities to partner with me to apply pressure and weaken any bills infringing on the livelihoods of Floridians. Additionally, I believe there can be room for bipartisanship that works on behalf of Floridians to put people over profits and partisanship, and I am prepared to lead that fight on day one.